Fans pack the stands at their favorite sporting events, chanting “Bear Down!” at the top of their lungs as they wait for their favorite Wildcat players. Hundreds of thousands of tickets are sold each year for the 20 sports played at the University of Arizona.
In 2015 the UA ranked 21st in the country for money earned from its collegiate sports, bringing in a whopping $99.9 million in revenue, according to Business Insider. The buzz created by athletic events also benefits the local economy, especially businesses around the university.
Despite this popularity, university officials insist that an athlete’s status on campus does not translate to special privileges in the classroom. Being a student takes precedence over being an athlete, said cheer coach Jamie Bernier. From the moment that athletes put on their uniform, the importance of maintaining an acceptable grade point average is embedded in their minds. “Your whole goal should be to graduate,” Bernier said.
Athletes must maintain at least a 2.3 GPA, or their eligibility will be revoked, according to NCAA guidelines. At the UA, C.A.T.S. Academics counselors meet weekly with all incoming freshmen, transfer students and students who are at risk with a GPA below 2.3, according to the student athlete handbook.
Athletes’ schedules fill up with games and practices, and it is very easy to fall behind, Bernier said. At least one academic adviser is assigned to each sports team to ensure that students complete their work.
Michelle Floyd, a recent graduate and former pitcher for the UA’s softball team, said a normal day during softball season started with strenuous morning workouts, followed by classes, tutoring sessions, softball practice, work and, if she was lucky, a few hours of sleep. “I would like you to do what I do every day and experience the sacrifices that I have made for this school and tell me again that I have special treatment,” she said.
Despite her many responsibilities, Floyd kept her eligibility all four years.
The key to success in the classroom was communication with her professors, Floyd said. Whenever she faced a scheduling conflict with a class, she let her professors know what was going on.
Christopher “Buzz” Conover, an adjunct professor at the UA School of Journalism, has had many student athletes in his classes over the years. Although he supports the university’s athletics and wants his students to perform well in their games, he said he makes sure they understand what is expected of them in his classes.
It is the students’ responsibility to keep up with their classwork, Conover said. The grade they receive at the end of the semester reflects the effort they put into the class. There is no exemption from completing classwork, not for busy students or athletes, he said.
The university also employs faculty athletics representatives who review any changes made to an athlete’s grades. Susan Knight, a journalism professor, said she once had to clarify a grade change for one of her students with Jory Hancock, the dean of the College of Fine Arts and a faculty athletics representative. The issue was resolved after she reassured Hancock that the change was valid.
The UA offers many opportunities for student athletes, but the priority is to prepare them for the real world. “Work with your academic adviser and your athletic adviser, because working with the two will help you in the long run,” said Paloma Boykin, the undergraduate academic adviser for the School of Journalism. “Make sure that you’re on track.”
This story was originally published in The Chronicle, a Dow Jones News Fund Diversity in Journalism Workshop publication. Katelyn Kubly, a Bear Essential News Elite Reporter, is a student at Saguaro School in Tucson. She was one of 12 students selected to participate in the workshop. Visit their website here.