On the schedule it was only one match, on a late-September Thursday night at Notre Dame.
But for the Duke women’s soccer team the logistics proved complicated, if not familiar, in this age of super-sized college athletics conferences and the challenges that have come with the growth. To make it to Notre Dame by Thursday night, Duke left campus on Wednesday morning.
The team flew commercial, Raleigh to Chicago, and from there rode a bus to Notre Dame. The Blue Devils left with a 3-0 victory, bused back to Chicago, and then waited for another flight home. By the time they returned on Friday, a single conference match and a school-record ninth consecutive victory had cost them three days of missed classes.
“And that was really problematic,” said Brad Berndt, the Duke senior associate athletic director who is in charge of the department’s academic affairs.
The conflict between college athletics and academics and, in particular, between athletics and class attendance, is as old as college sports themselves. And yet it’s one that has become magnified amid athletic conferences that span entire American coasts, as the ACC does, and sports schedules that have expanded in both time and distance.
The Duke women’s soccer schedule is but one example, amid hundreds among the teams at NCAA Division I schools, of the uncontrolled growth of major college athletics. Twenty years ago, the team played three conference road matches, the farthest at Florida State. This season, the team’s conference schedule included trips to Notre Dame, Louisville, Boston College and Syracuse.
In the ACC such travel has for years become the norm, while the quaint days of geographically-contained eight- or nine-school membership have become more distant. The conference’s expansion from nine schools to 12 became complete in 2005. The addition of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame (in all sports except football) made the ACC a 15-school league in 2013. When Maryland departed for the Big Ten in 2014, Louisville, nearly 500 miles to the west, became its replacement.
The geographic expansion of the conference, as well as the expanded schedules that have come with the overall growth of college sports, has made it more challenging for athletes to accomplish the most basic of tasks for any college student: show up to class.
“There’s certainly ways to catch up and receive tutoring,” Berndt said of athletics-related absences, “but there is no substitute for being in the classroom, especially at a place like Duke, where the classes are really small, and you learn from a faculty member but also learn from your fellow students.”
Consequences of growth
In a monetary sense, and a competitive one, ACC expansion has been a boon. The league has never been richer and has never rewarded its members with more money – an average of $26.3 million for each of the league’s 14 full members. Nor has the ACC, with reigning national champions in football (Clemson) and men’s basketball (North Carolina) ever been more successful on the field or court. Yet the unintended consequences of growth, such as the burden it has placed on athletes, their time and their ability to attend class, are beginning to come into focus.
For one Duke professor, the “the big-timeazation” of college athletics, as he recently described it, inspired a critical op-ed, which The News & Observer published earlier this month. In it, Orin Starn, an anthropology professor who has worked at Duke for 26 years, wrote that Duke “has its very own sports scandal” because, annually, its athletes “collectively miss classes by the thousands” due to athletic competition.
“Athletes in my big introductory course this semester have missed almost a hundred classes between them,” Starn wrote. “They are delightful, hard-working kids, but they don’t have time to do much more than pass. You can’t get much from a class missing so many lectures.
“Athletes do not have time for semester study abroad; writing for the school paper; joining student government. We give our athletes an impoverished imitation of a real college experience so that Duke can win a few more golf tournaments.”
In an email, Starn later wrote that members of one team, which he declined to identify, missed eight of his classes during the fall semester. Berndt, the Duke associate athletic director, read Starn’s op-ed with a discerning eye.
“To be frank,” he said, “there are some parts of what he wrote about that I would agree with but there’s a good amount that I would not agree with, as well.”
Chris Taylor, a wide receiver on the Duke football team, disagreed with Starn’s conclusion that athletes “don’t have time to do much more than pass” and keep up with the obligations of their sports. Taylor, a senior who has one year of football eligibility remaining, is the president of Duke’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from all varsity sports. He is also part of an on-campus organization against gender violence.
As the president of Duke’s SAAC (every school in the ACC has its own Student-Athlete Advisory Committee), Taylor has listened for the past two years to fellow athletes’ concerns about time demands. He supported legislation that the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC recently adopted, which mandates that college athletes receive one day off from team-related activities per week, during the season. Ultimately, though, Taylor also supports the idea that athletes are responsible for their path.
“As a football player, I would say that my career at Duke hasn’t been just about football,” he said. “I definitely think that people will make time for the things that they’re passionate about.”
Taylor added that he has “not heard any issues about midweek travel for games.”
‘Par for the course’
“I think it’s sort of par for the course when you sign up to be a big-time Division-I athlete,” he said. “You’re going to have to travel for games, and that’s part of it.”
While Starn has argued that college athletes at high-profile institutions like Duke don’t have time for much more than passing through, in an academic sense, Taylor argued that athletes receive inherent advantages for simply being an athlete. Those advantages — readily-available tutoring and routine academic counseling — make failure more difficult, he said.
“You have to try to fail, especially at a place like this,” Taylor said, “with the support that we have academically. We have mentors and academic support constantly checking up on us … and coach (David Cutcliffe) holds us to an extremely high standard.”
The central theme of Starn’s piece, though, is difficult to argue with: Athletes at Duke are missing classes at an alarming rate due to athletic competition, and due to longer seasons and more distant travel. Given that all ACC schools play similar schedules in all sports, what Starn wrote about isn’t unique to Duke.
That college athletes miss class because of competition isn’t revelatory. To Starn, though, athlete absences have become more and more frequent – so much so that he said during an interview after the publication of his op-ed that absences due to competition are “night and day from when I got here.”
Starn said in an interview that travel associated with basketball and football – which misses fewer classes because of its weekend games – has long been accepted. The difference now, he said, is that other, “non-revenue” sports are traveling more often, and farther away, than ever.
“It’s just completely clear from the professor’s eye view that sports have been taking up more and more time,” said Starn, who played golf at Haverford College in the late 1970s, and golf at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s. “The travel has increased, the training. I don’t see any signs whatsoever of it lessening.”
Starn’s experience has shaped his opinions, and observations, but connecting data to his anecdotes is difficult, if not impossible. Duke keeps a record of missed classes due to athletic competition – as well as missed classes due to illness, or religious reasons – but as a private institution it has no obligation to share those numbers.
NCAA attendance survey
N.C. State and North Carolina loosely track how team travel affects class attendance, officials at those schools said, but because athletes’ schedules aren’t uniform it can be difficult to discern how a given trip affects class attendance. Nationally, data related to college sports and class attendance are scarce, though the NCAA has produced some numbers, most recently in 2016 as part of a study of “the student-athlete experience.”
That study revealed that in 2015, the average Division I athlete spent 34 hours per week on his or her sport during the season. Division I football players in the bowl subdivision reported spending 42 hours per week on football during the season.
The NCAA mandates that athletes not devote more than 20 hours per week in season to “athletically related” activities like practice, film study, strength and conditioning and competition, but game travel and other tangential activities don’t count toward that limit, and there’s no way for the NCAA to enforce the limit. Starn called the 20-hour rule “a joke.”
It follows that the more time athletes spend on their sports, the greater the chance that they’ll be forced to miss class. The NCAA’s survey, though, found that missed classes were “generally low” and similar to what a 2010 survey found. The NCAA’s report revealed that in 2015, Division I men’s basketball players missed an average of 2.2 classes per week – or an average of about 30 classes over the course of a regular season that runs from mid-November to mid-March.
The NCAA’s data did not indicate how the NCAA basketball tournament affects class attendance but Starn offered a brusque opinion: “Forget it,” he said of players’ ability to regularly attend classes during the NCAA’s annual showcase event.
Division I football players in the bowl subdivision, which is the top level of college football that is made up of 129 teams, meanwhile, miss an average of 1.3 classes per week, according to the NCAA’s study. For a 12-week regular season, that translates into an average of nearly 16 missed classes per player, per season. Given that most college football games are on weekends, football players reported missing fewer classes than their peers in other sports.
Missing class because of competition is taken for granted, especially, in the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball. It’s long been understood that basketball’s month-long postseason, which includes conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament and NIT, can wreak havoc on players’ ability to attend class.
Luke Maye, a junior forward on the UNC basketball team and one of the team’s representatives on UNC’s SAAC, acknowledged recently that being forced to miss class because of team travel is “tough sometimes.”
“But I will say one thing,” Maye said, “My professors do an unbelievable job of working with me, and they’ve been so helpful and I’m so thankful that they’re willing to work with my schedule, and it’s been a true blessing.”
Maye last spring earned admittance into UNC’s school of business. He said the newly enforced one-day-off-per-week rule helped him during the fall semester, and added that there’s more of an understanding, on behalf of university leadership, about athlete time demands.
Maye’s schedule is busier than most athletes’, as well, because of his academic responsibilities in the business school. During a recent conversation about his demands, Maye didn’t seem fazed by the limitations of his time, nor did he seem burdened by playing basketball while in pursuit of a business degree.
“It’s a good amount of work,” he said, “but I feel like I balance it pretty well, and I do a great job of setting my priorities and making sure that I’m going to do my schoolwork and I’m going to get in the gym and get extra shots. Those are the two most important things, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability every single day.”
At the end of UNC’s final exam week, Maye traveled with his teammates for a game at Tennessee. It was the Tar Heels’ sixth game – out of 11 games, total – outside of the Smith Center. There was a time, now long in the past, when such early-season travel was a rarity in college basketball. Now the beginning of the season is becoming more demanding, too, given the time on the road.
A busier November
The men’s basketball teams at Duke, UNC and N.C. State all played more games in November this season than they did five years ago. All of them took extended trips the week of Thanksgiving – Duke and UNC to the West Coast, for the PK80 tournament in Portland, Ore., and N.C. State to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
Since those events took place the week of Thanksgiving, each team missed only two days of class. Duke and UNC, though, flew home after playing late Sunday night games. Duke’s, against Florida, didn’t begin until after 11 p.m. on the East Coast, and then the Blue Devils returned to campus early in the morning, just in time for the start of a regular academic week. For all three schools, the long trips over Thanksgiving came close to the start of final exams in December.
“I don’t think there’s anybody around the country, including Coach K, that wants to tip off a basketball game at 11:15 at night,” said Berndt, the Duke associate athletic director.
Berndt said he and his colleagues in athletic academic support around the country often discuss these issues that make class attendance more challenging – the far-flung trips, the late games, the increase in midweek competition in some sports, the expanded schedules that have made some nonrevenue sports, like tennis and golf, become two-semester sports instead of one. Coming up with solutions that allow athletes more time to focus on academics is a different story, though.
“We’ve talked about it,” said Katie Graham, the director of athletic academic support at N.C. State. “There’s no resolution. We don’t have a lot of power, honestly, in those situations.”
Graham, who earned her undergraduate degree from N.C. State in 2003, competed on the swimming and diving team during her college years. Berndt was a college athlete, as well, before beginning his career in college athletics administration, and so was Michelle Brown, the director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes at North Carolina.
The athletic academic support programs at all three local ACC schools, then, are led by individuals who are familiar with the grind of being a college athlete. At one point, they all lived it. In some ways, though, Brown, who in the early 1990s was an all-conference volleyball player at West Virginia, said college athletes have it easier than those from decades ago, because there is more available support.
“One of our primary roles is to work with student-athletes on demands and time management,” she said, and the growing conversation surrounding time demands, especially, has “caught fire quickly.”
“And that’s a good thing,” Brown said. “It needs attention on it.”
Duke, UNC and N.C. State have all adopted the use of technology in an attempt, among other things, to limit the amount of missed class due to athletics. To varying degrees, all three schools use software called “Teamworks,” which was developed in 2004 by Zach Maurides, a former Duke football player.
The software allows schools an easier way to track class schedules on a given team and, with that information, coaches and academic support members can adjust travel – such as leaving later for a road game – to minimize missed classes.
Technology has, in some cases, also reduced the necessity of physically attending a class, said N.C. State’s Graham. She said athletes there are more reliant than ever on online classes.
“And so instead of having four or five in-class classes in a semester, they may only have three,” she said.
Even so, college athletes are spending more time than they ever have on their sports. The study the NCAA published in 2016 revealed that, overall, Division I athletes spent two more hours per week, in season, on their sports than they did in 2010 (from an average of 32 hours to 34).
Massive conference realignment
Perhaps not coincidentally, major college sports underwent massive conference realignment during those five years, with the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC all becoming larger. The Big 12 shrunk, but added West Virginia, a school far removed from the conference’s Texas and Oklahoma roots.
Both the SEC and the Pac-12 launched television networks during those five years, joining the Big Ten Network, which launched in 2007. The networks have helped conferences become even richer – especially the Big Ten and the SEC – but they’ve also created a need for television inventory.
“In the ACC, we’ve been insulated from it, because we don’t have the TV network issues that some conferences do,” Graham said. She said some of her colleagues at Pac-12 schools have relayed stories about how the conference’s television network has created scheduling challenges that make things like attending class, and studying, more of a challenge.
An ACC Network, though, is scheduled to arrive in 2019.
“I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but if it is similar, we could see some of those challenges that I’ve heard about in the Pac-12,” Graham said. “So I don’t know what’s ahead for us.”
Berndt, the associate athletic director at Duke, shares the concerns about the ACC Network, and “filling all those time slots,” and how filling those slots could lead to more games at odd times, and, in turn, less time for academics.
“I think everybody is talking about it, everybody is discussing it,” he said of the conversation surrounding time demands on college athletes. “But everybody understands the money that is involved in TV deals. … We’re trying to help students balance their commitment to the academic mission of the institution and the commitment and love of their sport. And that makes it hard.
“Kids want to do it all, they want everything. And something has to give.”
It’s unlikely that the college athletics machine will be the one to give. It shows no sign of slowing. And though college administrators are sharing discussions about athlete time demands, and the unintended consequences of the growth, there are no significant changes waiting to arrive.
The status quo appears most likely: the same burdensome trips to faraway locales for conference games, the same long November basketball trips, the same challenge for athletes to try to catch up in the classroom after their athletic obligations have forced them out of it.
If there are to be changes, the athletes themselves will have to initiate them. The ACC in recent years has included representatives from its schools’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committees at ACC meetings. It’s a start, and at the conference and national level athletes have more of a voice than they once did.
“And if they’re loud enough, and if it is affecting them,” Graham said, “and if they’re loud enough about travel, and midweek games and missing class, that would be the way to change.”