Supporting Student Athletes

Political Science Educator: volume 26, issue 1


Quinn Bornstein, Georgetown University

My proudest teaching moment was when two students approached me after our last discussion section of the fall semester and thanked me for being so supportive of them as student-athletes. They said their experience in my class was unique; their previous teachers were difficult when they asked for accommodations. I was pleased that my message on the first day of class, that I had been a student-athlete myself and was therefore available as a resource, resonated with them.

I understand that sometimes practice runs late, sometimes because of visiting the athletic trainer, or, most concerning of all, waiting for the doctor to explain the results of an x-ray—a faint fracture line can lead to a season of aqua jogging in the pool.

This was my experience as an undergraduate. I competed as a long-distance runner for Brown University. For four years I ran cross-country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, outdoor track in the spring, and rigorous summer training. While thankfully my professors were for the most part understanding of my dual commitments to athletics and academics, not all my teammates were as lucky. Many had to take final exams in hotel rooms, proctored by our coach, on the night before a fall or spring conference meet, their nerves already stretched to breaking point.

Student-athletes face unique challenges during their undergraduate experiences. While the term student-athlete seems to embody an individual who can merge their academic and athletic lives into one (notably putting academics first, rather than being an athlete-student), these two lives are often at odds with each other. To be a successful athlete, it is important to eat balanced meals, get a full night’s sleep, spend many hours a week doing prehab (stretches and exercises to prevent injury and strengthen weaknesses) and rehab (the same, but for injury recovery), and allow your body to rest in between periods of exertion. To be a successful college student, on the other hand, involves a contradictory set of expectations: pulling all-nighters at the library, staying up late socializing or eating fried food at the college snack bar, getting involved in extracurricular clubs, or securing internships.

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded these concerns – a student-athlete contemplating a night out the week before a big game must not only weigh the pros and cons of being social with getting rest but is also concerned that a COVID-19 diagnosis could take them out of the line-up or hamper their season.

While universities have academic advisors to help athletes who are struggling to keep their grades up, this is not enough. It is important for faculty and graduate teaching assistants to understand the unique needs of student-athletes. Educators must be compassionate in helping these students come up with plans to do well in their classes.

In one instance, a student-athlete in my class emailed me shortly before an evening discussion section to say that his practice had run late and, with a short window of time until the dining hall closed, he was deciding whether to attend class or eat dinner. I advised him on the latter, knowing the importance of refueling quickly after exercise to allow the body to recover, and that hungry students have a hard time focusing and therefore do not learn. I told him that he could make up his discussion section participation points by emailing me a one-page Word document on his thoughts on the previous week’s reading. This was a policy I set out for all students at the beginning of the semester, not wanting students with potential coronavirus symptoms to attend class anyway out of a fear of getting a bad class participation grade. The policy worked well, and it demonstrated that there are ways we can support students—those with colds, family obligations, or a coach who talks for so long at practice that you miss dinner—while not letting them off the hook in terms of their academic obligations. However, I fear that an educator who did not personally understand the student-athlete experience would have been less lenient than I and would have compelled the student to attend class on an empty stomach.

If educators are not understanding of student-athletes’ obligations, it could increase the gulf between athletes and non-athletes. A recent survey of college student found that non-student-athletes perceive their student-athlete peers as “a distinct and privileged group who prioritizes their athletic participation over academic performance with institutional support and resources not available to nonathlete students, suggesting that student-athletes are categorized as an outgroup by students” (Yukhymenko-Lescroart 2022, 24).

Some of these students may be aware of statistics, such as from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 2010 College Sports Project, which showed that student-athletes at Division III schools had lower GPAs than their non-athlete peers. The starkest disparity was for male recruited athletes, meaning those who were sought out by college coaches while they were still in high school (Rampbell 2010). While these results are illustrative, particularly the performance difference by gender (there is a far greater gap between male athlete and non-athlete performance compared to female), they are also limited. Division III schools do not offer scholarships, unlike in NCAA Divisions I (apart from the Ivy League) and II (NCAA 2022). DI and DII students may therefore have different priorities, such as a concern that quitting a sports team could mean losing out on a college education they couldn’t afford without a scholarship. More, and more recent, research is needed on the motivations, needs, and academic performance of student-athletes.

In political science, internships on the Hill or in local Congressional offices, or writing for a campus political magazine, may be unavailable to student-athletes whose practice obligations conflict with these job’s hours, or who cannot take a semester away from their sport to work on a campaign or live in Washington D.C. despite the career benefits down the road. We can do more as political science educators to identify opportunities for students whose time outside the classroom is not fully their own—whether these obligations are due to athletic or other obligations. One upside of the pandemic is that virtual internships with flexible hours could open the application field to those who must remain close to campus.

A study by Brecht and Burnett examined tactics for best supporting DI student-athletes in their first year of college. They found that the strongest indicator of retention, meaning staying enrolled in college, was having a good high school GPA. While this recommendation is likely not unique to student-athletes, it can help athletic advisors seek out those students who, based on their high school experiences, may need more assistance transitioning to college.

The authors also found that self-confidence was an important characteristic for success and retention. They conclude, “giving students opportunities to learn the necessary skills to improve classroom performance may likewise increase their self-confidence, which in turn positively affects their academic performance” (Brecht and Burnett 2019: 56). I would add that self-confidence also positively affects athletic performance, thus increasing self-confidence, thus improving academic achievement, and so on.

Therefore, as we discuss the ways in which we can support students after more than two years of pandemic-induced stress and virtual or hybrid schooling, we must keep in mind the commitments that many students face outside the classroom. How best can we support them and give them the self-confidence to achieve both in the classroom and on the field? It may be as small a gesture as permitting a student-athlete to eat an after-practice snack in class, flagging a political internship with flexible hours, or asking them how their game went last week.


Brecht, April A., and Dana D. Burnett. 2019. “Advising Student-Athletes for Success: Predicting the Academic Success and Persistence of Collegiate Student-Athletes.” NACADA 39 (1): 49–59.

Rampell, Catherine. “Grading College Athletes.” Economix Blog (blog), October 15, 2010. “Scholarships.” Accessed June 5, 2022.

Yukhymenko-Lescroart, Gitima. 2022. “An Examination of Stereotypes toward Varsity Student-Athletes Based on Student Perceptions. – PsycNET.” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 26 (1): 24–42.

Quinn Bornstein is a Ph.D. student at Georgetown University

Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.

Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)


APSA Educate has republished The Political Science Educator since 2021. Any questions or corrections to how the newsletter appears on Educate should be addressed to

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