Between Division III Athletes and Professors

Evan Tucker, a former college football player, and Michael Nelson, a faculty member, spell out what athletes wish professors knew and vice versa.

August 25, 2017

Division III colleges and universities, which don’t award athletic scholarships, outnumber their generally much larger Division I counterparts by 442 to 347. Yet many professors at Division III liberal arts colleges earned their advanced degrees at Division I universities at which varsity athletes are less than 5 percent of the student body, live and eat in athletic cocoons, and, when they do appear in class, visibly (and often consciously) stand apart from other students. As a result, even many small-college professors begin their teaching careers suspicious of the athletes in their classes.

They shouldn’t. Division III is different. Varsity athletes are not unusual; on average they make up about one-fourth of all students at these institutions. In addition to not being on athletic scholarships, they live in regular dorms and eat in the cafeteria. They major in just about everything -- not just the few athletic department-approved fields.

Yet Division III student athletes also resemble Division I athletes in important ways. They travel to away games, missing whole stretches of class. They lift, practice and watch film just about every day. In season, that’s about a 35-hour-per-week commitment; in the off-season, it can run as high as half that. They think their professors don’t understand how hectic their schedules are, and often they are right.

Misconceptions die hard, but in the service of extinguishing at least some of them, the two of us -- Evan, a four-year football player and biology major at Rhodes College, and Michael, a political science professor there -- offer these two lists, one spelling out what athletes wish professors knew and the other listing what professors wish athletes knew.

First, athletes to professors.

  • Recognize that injuries happen, and it’s worse for us than for you. We’re not happy that we can’t walk up the stairs to your office. Or write with our dominant hand. Or even read for more than 10 minutes at a time. Work with us to set a reasonable schedule for catching up on assignments.
  • Understand that we don’t make the schedule. If we need to miss class for a game, we can’t do anything about it. It’s our job to do what it takes to make up the work, but when a professor tells us, “That’s an important day you’re going to miss,” it doesn’t change the fact that we still have a game.
  • Address your internal biases. Undoubtedly some student- athletes are uninterested and uninvolved, but some professors project this trait onto every athlete they teach. Know that many student athletes are just as passionate about their field of study as their sport and that assuming the worst about a student is more likely to foster undesirable traits than to diminish them.
  • Know that we’re sorry for dozing in class. That’s not a suggestion but an apology. Late evenings watching game film before studying in the library and early-morning practices sometimes get the best of us, regardless of how interested we are in your class.
  • Be clear about expectations. Athletes are accustomed to being told by coaches exactly what we’re supposed to do on the field. Be clear and consistent with instructions and due dates. We’ll perform better when our professors are as clear as our coaches.

Next, professors to athletes.

  • Sit front or at least center in class. Above all, do not clump together in the back of the room. The signal you want to send your professors is that you are individual students, not a delegation from the team who happens to be taking the same class. That will be an especially unnatural act for freshman athletes playing fall sports, because you arrive on the campus a couple weeks before the rest of the student body and forge your first on-campus friendships with teammates. Naturally you, like everyone else, would prefer to sit near your friends in class. Make a point of not doing that.
  • Don’t let your first impression on the professor be an announcement of the days you’ll miss class for team travel. Establish yourself in your professors’ minds as a student before you do anything else, so that when you -- like other students who occasionally travel for college-sponsored academic events like Model UN and undergraduate research conferences -- do inform them you will have to miss a class, they will already know you as a student.
  • Invite your professors and their families or friends to come watch one of your team’s games. If you’re assuming that most professors know when your home games are, you are probably wrong. Even those who do know would appreciate a personal invitation. And they’ll thank you. The truth is that Division III sports contests, most of them free and with easy parking, are among the great entertainment bargains around.
  • Never miss a class you don’t have to miss. Most professors grant their students a little slack in terms of unexcused, unpunished cuts. Make a point of not taking even one as a way of showing that although you may have to miss class sometimes, it’s never by choice. The message to your professors is: I’m in your class every chance I get.
  • On the one NCAA-mandated day each week that your team can not practice, go to out-of-class lectures, programs or other events that your professors recommend. That will set you apart from most of your nonathlete classmates in a way that marks you as academically serious.

A common theme runs through these specific bits of advice: put yourself in the other person’s position. Mindful empathy by professors about athletes and athletes about professors will improve their relationship without lists like these ever being needed.


Evan Tucker recently graduated with a biology degree from Rhodes College, where he played football. He is now as an intern at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. Michael Nelson is the Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes and the author of Resilient America: Electing Nixon, Channeling Dissent and Dividing Government, which won the Richard Neustadt Award for best book on the presidency and executive politics in 2014.

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