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Ryan Johnson, Published December 13 2012

Bison players balance roles of athlete, student to be on the team

FARGO - North Dakota State University student Andre Martin had two kinds of homework this week – writing a paper and studying for one last test of the semester, and studying film and looking through the playbook to get ready for tonight’s semifinal football game against Georgia Southern.

“It can be pretty tough with balancing it, but it’s just prioritizing and knowing what’s most important,” said Martin, a senior cornerback.

Grant Olson also faces the challenge of being both a student and an athlete. The junior linebacker and industrial engineering major spent this week preparing for three tests and a speech – hardly an easy feat after his big performance last Saturday when he set a Bison record with 29 tackles against Wofford College.

“With finals week, there’s a lot of grade implication in that, and with football obviously if we win we’re going to the national championship game, so this is the most important game up to this date by far,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that they’ve got to fall in the same week, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The 380 or so student athletes at NDSU have to find a way to balance the demands of their studies with the time and energy needed to excel at their sport, said Colleen Heimstead, NDSU associate athletic director for compliance.

“It’s going to be a crazy week for everybody,” she said earlier this week. “Their focus is obviously on the game, and hopefully from the hours of maybe 8 to 3 they can focus on their finals and get through.”

Making the cut

Heimstead said doing well academically is more than just a goal for student athletes. It’s a requirement, and they have to meet benchmarks established by the NCAA to remain eligible to play.

The rules start even before an athlete comes to NDSU, she said. They go through the same application process as the rest of the student body, but they also have to show they’ve completed minimum core classes during high school and must have a certain grade point average and standardized test score to get the NCAA’s approval.

NCAA rules that apply throughout an athlete’s college career can be “a little confusing,” with some requirements applying to only certain sports, Heimstead said.

Athletes generally must be a full-time student, meaning they need to be enrolled in at least 12 credits for undergraduate studies and nine credits for graduate work. Of those, football players need to pass at least nine credits in the fall to be eligible to play the next fall, and only credits toward their chosen major are counted, she said.

If a football player doesn’t pass nine credits in the fall, he may be able to make it up by earning additional credits in the spring or by enrolling in summer school.

The rules for baseball are different, with athletes required to be academically eligible at the start of the fall semester to play the next spring. If they don’t meet that cutoff, Heimstead said, they’ll have to sit out the spring season.

All student athletes need to earn at least 18 credits toward their majors each academic year during the fall and spring semesters. They earn one credit per semester for being an active part of their team.

The NCAA sets rules for postseason play, requiring student athletes to pass at least six credits in the semester leading up to championship games. For the football team, that means each player had to earn at least six credits toward their majors to be on the field for today’s semifinal.

Student athletes also have other academic goals that determine their eligibility, including a GPA of 1.8 by the end of their freshman year that slowly increases to a minimum 2.0 GPA at the end of their junior year.

They’re required to declare a major prior to their junior year, and have to show they’ve completed at least 40 percent of their degree at that time.

Heimstead said an athlete will run afoul of NCAA rules from time to time, but remaining eligible is a big motivator. Nearly all earn scores well above the minimum standards.

“Because every semester we’re looking at it and we’re certifying eligibility, they have a pretty good idea of what they need to do,” she said. “I tell them go to class, pay attention and you’re going to be fine.”

The average GPA for student athletes at the university is above a 3.0, she said, and 57 percent of student athletes who started at NDSU in fall 2005 earned a degree from the school within six years – better than the overall student body’s graduation rate of 54 percent.

Martin, a gerontology student who transferred to NDSU this year from the University of Northern Iowa, said it comes down to figuring out where to put the most effort.

If a student athlete has a C in one class and an A in another, it might be better to work to boost the lower grade and see the better grade slip a bit, he said.

“You’ve got to kind of balance it out like that,” he said.

Olson said his finals week this semester was actually a lighter load than last fall, when his grades weren’t as high and he knew he had to perform well on all the tests.

He said professors are good about working with the players or letting them take a test early, which gives athletes time for practice and travel to games even in the midst of the busy final weeks of the semester.

“I think we’re regular students, but I do appreciate the fact that most professors are very understanding with the fact that we are athletes,” Olson said.

Olson said the roles of student and athlete aren’t incompatible. As he’s progressed through his industrial engineering studies, he said the knowledge has given him unique insight into the game.

“When I understand schemes and game plans and plays that we’re running,” he said, “I can look at it and say, ‘OK, this is how it works,’ and understand the concepts of velocity and force and those things which we have to know as an engineer to be able to do things. It’s not the exact same, but I can relate it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587