Stony Brook Athletics tackles challenges of academics

460,000 NCAA student-athletes have to fit their sports and social lives along with school work into their daily schedules. The problem is, there are only 24 hours in a day.

“It’s very hard. It’s very hard,” Courtney Rickard, Stony Brook’s Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development, said. “I tell every recruit and their families when they come, I would have failed out of school if I had been a Division I student-athlete.”

There are some programs that help their pupils take the easy way out to squeeze sports and school work in, while still getting through the rigors of a college course load.

The University of North Carolina used “fake paper classes” for 18 years, according to multiple media outlets. Student-athletes never had to meet, and they only wrote one paper per semester. Stony Brook Athletics does not want to go down that road.

“We’re not the North Carolina scandal, we’re going to do it right,” Rickard said. “If we’re going to have athletics at Stony Brook, we’re going to do it right.”

That has not always been the case for the Seawolves. Way before Stony Brook’s baseball team went to the 2012 College World Series, the men’s basketball team beat the No. 13-ranked squad in the nation at the end of 2014 and the women’s lacrosse team earned a top-five national ranking this year, the Athletics Department found itself in trouble.

According to The New York Times, the school lost 12 and a half athletic scholarships for two seasons based on violations. The report states that, “some academically ineligible students were allowed to compete, some did not have satisfactory grade-point averages, and others did not have enough credit hours for graduation.”

Ever since, Stony Brook Athletics’ administration has worked with its student-athletes to make their two jobs—one as a student and another as an athlete— as successful as possible.

Student-athletes do not only have the pressure of performing in their respective sporting venue, but in the classroom as well. (Andrew Eichenholz)
Student-athletes do not only have the pressure of performing for their respective team, but in the classroom as well. (Andrew Eichenholz)

“You’ve got the athletics piece and you’ve got the academics piece and heaven forbid they want to join a club, they want to be involved in something, that’s a drain on their time,” Rickard said. “Our job really is to try to help alleviate any of that stress and really organize their day.”

Ever since Rickard started as an advisor at Stony Brook in 2003, Seawolves student-athletes have improved in the classroom. The department’s overall grade-point average has risen from a 2.86 in the 2003-2004 academic year to its current number of 3.08.

Stony Brook’s Director of Athletics, Shawn Heilbron, will soon unveil that the department seeks to bring the overall GPA to a 3.15 as part of a larger five year plan, per Rickard.

According to Dr. Richard Laskowski, who was the Dean of Physical Education and Athletics at Stony Brook over a decade ago, departments looking to increase performance both on and off of the field, as Stony Brook is attempting to do, face a challenge.

“You’ve got to bring in good students. But history shows, unfortunately, that generally the higher the level of athletic performance that’s asked for in a university, the more difficult it is to get those students who have high grades,” Laskowski said. “They’re more likely to focus on their athletic ability.”

An example is the University of Notre Dame, where according to Laskowski, who was also a high-ranking administrator at St. John’s University, the Fighting Irish have slightly lowered their standards for the sake of securing students who can help them the most on the playing field.

According to CNN, the academic fraud bug bit them in 2014. “Several University of Notre Dame students, including four football players, are being investigated over academic fraud allegations, the university said.”

Stony Brook's teams win conference championships, send student-athletes to the pros, and more recently, have increased their GPAs. (Andrew Eichenholz)
Stony Brook’s teams win conference championships, send student-athletes to the pros, and more recently, have increased their GPAs. (Andrew Eichenholz)

Stony Brook does not want to sacrifice its academics for anything.

“Because of the high standards we have here at Stony Brook, we always wanted to do that, that was always one of our goals when we were doing a strategic plan or a five-year plan, increase the GPAs,” Laskowski said. “But to do that, it’s hard to also increase the level of your athletic program, it’s not that easy. It’s very challenging.”

That is a struggle that Rickard and company deal with every day.

“Coaches don’t like surprises at the end of the semester,” she said. “but we don’t like surprises during the semester.”

Academic coaches meeting individually with students and teams holding study halls at the Stuart Goldstein Student-Athlete Development Center are some of the efforts made to keep students on track.

“It’s everybody at the table,” Rickard said. “Everyone involved with student athlete welfare coming to the table and working so that the calendar of things they have to do somehow fits in those 24 hours.”

To faculty, it is not about merely helping student-athletes skate by and just earn their degrees, either. Since Heilbron took the job a year ago, much time has been spent focusing on what comes next for the Seawolves.

“That hundred percent placement in something after graduation is going to fall on our shoulders here in student-athlete development and it really always has, but now it’s put into place, it’s written out,” Rickard said. “I think that’s a challenge because that’s a hard task to fill, but at the same time, that’s what our mission is. I always tell people on their recruiting visit, ‘if you come here for four years and you leave and you have no idea what to do after that, I have failed you.’”

Despite the obstacles, Stony Brook Athletics is not failing, but only building upwards.

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