Sadly, the popularity and commercialization of sports at Division I
schools has given all college sports a negative connotation. Serious athletes at every school, in every sport, must battle the stereotypes that come from these connotations. Believe it or not, not everyone who practices four hours a day to achieve perfection
in their sport sacrifices their academic efforts to do so.
I won't deny that the state of college sports at many schools is shameful. However, the typical frenzy that surrounds football bowl games, the Final Four, and other major championships goes against the original intent of college athletics. This original intent was present before the almighty dollar took over, and reflected the idea of a well-rounded individual who would strive for excellence in all areas. The primary purpose of the NCAA is, according to their website at http://ncaa.org, "To initiate, stimulate and improve intercollegiate athletics programs for student-athletes and to promote and develop educational leadership, physical fitness, athletics excellence and athletics participation as a recreational pursuit." Unfortunately, the restrictions placed on so-called "student-athletes" are not very strict at all. When was the last time you heard of a first-round draft pick's eligibility being revoked for bad grades? The number of these athletes that leave school early for professional leagues has been increasing steadily, thus defeating the purpose of being a student-athlete in the first place.
Though the idea of a scholarly athlete is foreign in the mind of the average American, such individuals do exist. The bastardized image of the student who places athletics before academics is often the only one revealed to the media. The strong tradition of athletics in addition to scholarship lives on, though, without much attention. The tradition is present more strongly in certain sports than others, and can be observed more clearly in certain institutions than others.
Most of the popular sports today are based on natural talent. Either you're a good quarterback or you're not. As a result, most professional athletes and elite collegiate athletes have a poor work ethic, as evidenced by the poor attendance at many teams' training camps. Such laziness wouldn't cut it in an endurance sport such as rowing. The strongest man in the world would not be able to row effectively without constant practice. On the other hand, I once made a claim that any average man could break 6:50 for a 2k on the ergometer with one year of serious training. This is a claim I have yet to retract and one that many of my teammates agree with. When I say "serious training", however, I mean exactly that. It will probably take a serious, painful schedule of weight lifting, running, rowing, and erging to achieve that mark. With that kind of commitment, though, anyone could achieve a 6:50, which is not a great leap from the intermediate level of rowing for lightweight men. With a similar level of commitment to football, for instance, an average man may not even achieve mediocrity. Of course, genetics play a huge factor in rowing, but without the commitment to be great, genetics are nothing.
Back in the days when both words in the term "student athlete" carried equal weight, it was understood that the student athlete would work for his accomplishments, whether they're on the field or in the classroom. Now this understanding has been destroyed by the cocky Allen Iversons and Shaquille O'Neals who have had excellence handed to them.
For those of us who have to earn greatness though sweat, blood, tears, and vomit, the stereotypical image of the great athlete makes life difficult. I devote a huge chunk of time to my sport. Often, workouts drain my legs so severely that I have to walk up and down stairs backwards. I bring huge bottles of diet soda with me to class when I have to cut weight, and I'm taunted for not being able to eat. I wear the shirts of the men I've defeated to class as a symbol of my achievement. In speaking to very old alumni, I've come to understand that there was a time when these images would win me some form of respect among my peers, rowers or not. This is no longer the case.