Student-athletes or athlete-students?


Ally Zacek|The DePaulia

You wake up. The alarm clock is still buzzing in your ear as you scarf down a breakfast burrito and begin packing your uniform. For a moment you think about the final project you haven’t started yet and decide to shake the thought. You need to concentrate on what counts. You need to be prepared for anything. Your plane leaves for California in three hours: It’s game day.

For student athletes sports are not a hobby, but a lifestyle. While the constant balancing act between school and sports can pose many challenges, the love of the game ultimately makes all the effort worthwhile.

Spring sports often face problems such as shifting weather, muddy fields and heat waves. In addition to the hefty school workload, spring athletes must travel further distances in order to avoid the harsh Chicago climate that interferes with tournaments and meets.

“Chicago has some great venues for championship golf but spring makes it more difficult for northern schools,” said Garet Buckley, a senior on the DePaul golf team. “If the season went later we would see a lot more northern golf. By June, the weather and the courses are ready, and that’s why the NCAA championship was about an hour away from the city last year.”

The life of a student athlete is both exhausting and time consuming. Many athletes at DePaul spend hours on and off the field training, practicing and competing.

“We wake up at 6:30 a.m. to run because we have to log 8 miles per week to keep in shape. At 8 a.m. we lift with our trainers and then classes are sometimes between 9:40 a.m-1:20 p.m.,” said Buckley. “We leave for practice at 2 p.m and return to campus around 6 p.m.”

DePaul’s golf team practices at Ruffled Feathers in Lemont, Illinois, a golf club an hour away from the Lincoln Park campus. However, harsh weather conditions during spring sometimes prevent or interfere with outdoor practices.

“We have our on-campus simulator and practice area for days when there are bad weather predictions,” said Buckley. “There’s nothing to gain from practicing or playing in steady rain.”

Many northern universities travel to warmer states for competition. However, for students this means missing multiple days of school.

The golf team typically travels to Florida, Arizona, Iowa and South Carolina for tournaments. Despite the vast number of golf courses in Illinois, weather conditions in warmer states during spring are more dependable for national tournaments.

Buckley says that travel can start early. Golfers will often leave campus around 5 a.m. in order to catch a flight that arrives with enough time to play a practice round — a three to four hour time commitment for an efficient golfer on foot — before competition begins the following day. 

Members of the track team share a similar experience.

“Typically we fly to places farther away and drive to meets that are in the Midwest,” said Jade Gates, a freshman thrower. “We’ve traveled all across the country and each year we get to visit new places. That’s one of the most exciting parts of being on the team.”

The track team has meets in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, California and Oregon.

The tournament schedule requires student athletes to play for multiple days at a time. Often on weekends, athletes are competing against other schools. During weekdays, athletes train and practice multiple times each week.

“We usually have 2-hour practices 5 days a week and 3 hours of lifting each day,” says Gates. “Meets can be anywhere from 2-5 days depending where it’s at.”

Managing the workload of a full-time student can be challenging with the demanding schedule athletes face.

“We really don’t have time for school work on the road, and we have to either get ahead of projects or get extensions,” said Buckley. “Only having a 4-day week at DePaul is really helpful because we can always leave for events earlier than other schools if we need too.”

The balancing act between school and sport is a complicated issue that affects both students and faculty.

“Kids are pushed extremely hard at the expense of their education. The traveling and the amount of time kids are spending is taking away from academics and the college experience,” said Robert Kallen, an NCAA expert and visiting professor in DePaul’s economics department. “The traveling and the amount of time kids are spending is taking away from academics and the college experience.”

DePaul generates lots of revenue from sports, which puts even greater pressure on students and coaches to succeed athletically.

“Athletics is a business in college, and its purpose is primarily to generate money from women and men’s basketball teams at DePaul,” said Kallen. “We hope that the men’s and the women’s basketball teams generate enough revenue to cover the school, but there is great pressure from the Athletics Department for students in lesser revenue sports to grow their sport.”

During stressful times in the quarter, coaches help ensure athletes can be successful students by adjusting practices and training requirements to meet students’ needs.

“When it’s finals week they give us time to do our work,” said Brian Mada, junior jumper. “Sometimes balancing my schedule is hard, but you figure it out over time.”

However, when athletes are on the road they often wait to do schoolwork until after the tournament is over, which creates high levels of stress in meeting deadlines and getting good grades.

“When I’m traveling I don’t think about school,” said Mada. “I want my entire focus to be on the game.”

Athletes like Gates believe sports push students to their full potential as both players and learners.

“I think sports have helped my academic success,” said Gates. “It helps you balance your time and figure out how to manage your schedule. My life is sports and school; I’m not distracted by other things that might hold me back.”

However, despite the circumstances, many students like Gates believe the benefits outweigh the costs.

“Nothing is given to us,” says Gates. “We didn’t get here from luck. We always put in the work.”