The business of college athletics is in the eye of the beholder

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Second of three parts

By Steve Smith

The start of college ushers in responsibilities that many young people wouldn’t have at their parents’ house. Examples are getting up on time, arriving to class on time and doing one’s laundry (and being careful not to mix reds with whites).

A lack of parental supervision comes with a trade-off in roles. For high-school athletes who’ve opted to play sports in college, a coach, a teacher or academic adviser takes the role of a parent.

Last week, almost a dozen former area prep athletes talked about their adjustments. This week, they talk about any business side to college athletics and how much academic help comes from their respective schools.

Is college athletics a business?

Brighton High School graduate Dylan Selph, who played football at Willamette University in Salem Oregon, said no.

“It is more like a brotherhood,” he said. “Since fall, our team has received a brand new coaching staff. I have nothing to say but great things about them.”

Lorenna Hernandez, who went from playing softball at Frederick High School to playing softball at Fisher College in Boston, disagreed.

“At times, college itself definitely feels like a business,” she said. “You constantly have to be on top of everything. Everything has to be perfect, especially when you are an athlete. Your schedule is jam-packed, and you will constantly be on the go. No matter what at times – just like in a job – you will feel overwhelmed and constantly be pushed to do more.”

Hernandez saw an upside to life in college.

“The good thing is that a majority of the time, your teachers will work with you,” she said. “In order for them to work with you, you need to be willing to work with them by attending class on time when you can and staying on top of your work.”

Former Brighton High School football player and wrestler Ian Helwick agreed. He goes to Western State University in Gunnison.

“It does feel like a business,” he said. “Every day, I compete to keep my scholarship either in the classroom or on the field.”

His former teammate, Jacob Wilton, who played football at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said it’s more like a family and not a business.

“Everyone that you’re around has the same goal as you, even the coaches,” he said. “The coaches are there to develop the players into the best athletes in the country so we can win. The players are there to develop themselves into elite athletes and win. Even the strength coaches are there to develop their players into elite athletes. Everyone has the same goal, which makes it really fun to be around everyone. If someone messes up, everyone around you is there to support and guide you.”

Adams City alum Carlos Barrera, who played football and ran track at Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa, said it felt like a business to him “as it should.”

“Not everyone can play college athletics, and there’s a reason. They only bring in people who can help the program succeed and not cancers to the team,” he said. “You see the business side when a coach will cut a player, regardless of their talent, and recruit someone else. It isn’t out of bad intentions but show you aren’t special and have to hold yourself accountable and to a higher standard. There’s always another person waiting to take your opportunity.”

Former Frederick volleyball player Seanna Conklin, who played volleyball for Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, said college athletics didn’t feel like a business to her.

“We had a new coach, and the focus was more on that than stepping into a structured program,” she said. “Coming from Colorado, the club teams and politics are much more a business than where I attend college. For club, at the higher level, you either produce or you don’t get playing time. At this level, they take players who know what they are doing, know how to be a team player, have good character and a great work ethic.

“It’s more of a business recruiting than when you actually get here,” she added. “It’s a process, and you have to believe your coach knows what it takes to get your team to play as a unit and succeed.”

Brighton wrestler Nathan Baca, who traveled to Minot State in North Dakota, thought college athletics amounted to a business.

“If you are on scholarship, you are getting paid to perform and do everything that’s expected of you,” he said. “Your job is to remain academically eligible, better yourself as an athlete and compete at the best of your ability. You are also expected to represent the team and the school with professionalism.”

“It does feel almost like a business,” said Prairie View High School grad and Rider University pitcher Brooklyn Trujillo-Quintana. “You are getting paid to get an education, so you need to treat it like a job. You aren’t going to go to work and not be prepared, so that was my mindset – get ready for work by practicing, doing things that I didn’t take seriously in high school, like practice and pitching every day, lifting, conditioning and even yoga for mindset adjustments.”

Former Brighton High School soccer player Hannah Day said college athletics feels like a business to her. She played soccer at Trinidad State Junior College.

“If I don’t do well in classes, then I can’t play. And if I can’t play, then I’m losing money,” she said.

Former Eagle Ridge Academy volleyball player Lexi Cox, who went to Peru (Nebraska) State College, said college level athletics “are definitely a business.”

“The main reason is because as a coach, their job is on the line just as much as an athlete’s scholarship,” she said. “They could lose their job, and an athlete can lose their spot in an instant if they don’t see a winning record.”

“It’s not really a business,” said former Prairie View High School multisport athlete Mikhail Sands. He ran track at Wayne (Nebraska) State this spring. “It’s definitely cutthroat.”

Academic assistance

Ten of the 11 athletes we contacted get some form of academic assistance.

“Academically they set up meetings with each individual player to see how they’re doing, if they’re struggling anywhere, and how they can help,” he said, “whether that be by seeking out a tutor, setting up meetings with advisors, or by just giving advice on the right way to go about things.”

A similar program exists for Wilton.

“We have a group of tutors that work directly with us to help us achieve success in the classroom so we can succeed on the field as well,” he said. “We have to have 20 hours or more in study hall per week meeting with tutors to get help with school.”

Helwick said there’s a four-day-a-week academic assistance program that’s available to him and other WSU athletes.

“We have a thing called academic game plan. We come in, plan out our week with classes and assignments and, from there, work or find help from other athletes, professors, and even coaches,” Helwick said.

“My team focuses on academics heavily and requires five study hours a week in our academic center,” Barrera said. “They also provide tutors and study sessions for anyone on the team struggling in any subject. Coaches will also do random class checks and if you aren’t in class, the punishment will make you never miss a class again, which keeps athletes accountable for the school work. Coach always preaches we’re here to get a degree first and play football second.”

Conklin said her school doesn’t set up special tutoring times for athletes. Other schools that recruited her did.

“Here it was a free for all. You either figured it out or you didn’t at the expense of your grades or your sport,” she said. “Education is my main priority, and if that meant staying up all night to get my work done, I stayed up all night.”

Her grade point average in the first semester – it coincided with her volleyball season – was 3.69.

“I’m pretty proud of that. My professors here have been amazing and push me knowing that I can always do better. My team does not really do anything to help each other to try to keep continuing to play as far as grades go,” she said. “I have a great group of teammates, and I feel each one is more focused on their own grades rather than helping others. I’m sure if any of us asked for help we would all step up and help.”

Baca’s wrestling team requires a certain amount of study hall hours per week, based on grade point averages.

“Study hall hours can be recorded in the library or in the Dean Frantsvog Academic Success Center, which is strictly for student-athletes. Those on the team with higher GPAs have fewer study hall hours, and those with lower GPAs have more hours,” Baca said. “Incoming freshman are required to do four study hall hours a week in their first semester to help them adjust to college. Wrestlers with very poor GPAs are required to do five study hall hours a week, one of the hours being with a coach.”

Quintana-Trujillo said her coaches want a high team grade point average.

“So one thing that my coaches have enforced is study hall,” she said. “All freshmen are required to do six hours a week both semesters. The only way you can get out of study hall is if you have a cumulative GPA of 3.2. We have an amazing study hall conductor who has helped me tremendously throughout the year, both academically and adjusting to college life in general.”

“My team has a two hour study hall every day after practice in order to make sure everyone’s keeping up with their grades,” Day said.

Cox goes to group study halls during the fall season “to make sure everyone improves academically.”

“We would have study hall every Thursday after practice,” she said. “Also, if an athlete is doing poorly in a class, we have a study hall called ATP. You have to go there for two hours each week until your grades improve.”

“My team lets its athletes take charge of their grades,” Sands said. “If you don’t cut it, you don’t compete. It’s just a matter of balancing everything.”