Op-ed: For college athletes, is graduation a celebration or a reality check?

Most people see graduation as a time to celebrate, a time for one to bask in one’s accomplishments. But for many college athletes, graduation represents a change in reality, a shift in their paradigm. For most of their lives collegiate spend their time indulged in their respective sports. These athletes have let sports direct and guide them towards every major life decision, and for the many who don’t get the opportunity to go pro, they now have to answer the age old question: what’s next?

Life after athletics and college can be a scary time for these students, so my question is what are the university coaches and staff doing to make the transition as smooth as possible for their student athletes?

After talking to current and former student athletes, I’ve come to realize that there needs to be more life skills and career building focus for athletes. This would allow them to develop the skills and traits that will help them on and off the field.

As a former student athlete, I can remember the struggles and stresses of trying to balance both school and football. Oftentimes athletes can find themselves immersed so deeply in their collegiate careers that they forget that this time at college is only temporary. Many times I would find myself so focused on football that my grades would slip as a result. This is something I’m sure many athletes can relate to. For many student athletes, education gets forced to the back burner, when in reality your degree is much more stable than one’s athletic career.

I think, along the way, both university coaches and staff lose sight of what is truly important. In college, the focus is on accumulating wins and making money for your football program and your college. I recall my time at Berkeley High as a simpler time, when my coaches, teachers, and counselors were really just concerned about my overall wellbeing. They wanted to make sure that they prepared me for that next level, which at that time was college.

Berkeley High coach Alonzo Carter made me take a weekly SAT prep class to better my chances at getting in to college. I had weekly progress reports that our teachers needed to sign and date. The recurring theme here is the constant communication among coaches, players, and the Berkeley High staff. Everyone had the same mission: to make sure that their student athletes were prepared for the transition that was ahead. If colleges can use this type of “student-athlete first” approach, I believe more students will leave feeling ready to face their new challenges.

As I sit here now, a college graduate, I feel unprepared for the challenges that await me. Don’t get me wrong: there are some characteristics that a person can only develop from playing sports. The ability to persevere, the understanding of hard work and dedication, these are things that one might not be able to learn if it weren’t for time spent playing sports. Collegiate sports, if done right, can also teach one how to balance time, how to prioritize and be diligent. With that being said, there are also some things that collegiate sports don’t offer, and that is why so many student athletes enter the “real world” without a clue or sense of direction.

College sports don’t prepare you for interviews or help you develop a resumé. At the same time how can a college athlete build their resumé if 90% of their time is being spent preparing for the next game or upcoming season?

Universities must come up with a plan that will allow for athletes to increase their chances of success away from athletics. Student athletes are forced to handle the same workload as a regular student and also play a sport at the same time. College sports are year-round, leaving no time for a student athlete to get an internship or any work experience in the field for which they are majoring.

A change in curriculum for college athletes might give them a chance at leveling the playing field with their peers who have had 4-5 years to build their resumés with internships and community service.

The full blame can’t be put on the shoulders of the universities and their staffs, however. The athletes are somewhat responsible, but it’s hard: their entire lives they’ve been told that sports would pave the way for them, and, once it is over, they have no clue what to do next.

Colleges must find a way to better prepare their athletes for life after college sports, so that graduation can truly be a celebration, and not a reality check.

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