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Spartans: True Student Athletes

MSU’s football players show that being a student and an athlete is not mutually exclusive

Fifteen Spartan Football Players Earn Degrees in December of 2019
Photo Courtesy of Matthew Mitchel, MSU Athletic Communications

Being a student athlete at a major university is hard. I certainly remember the long hours that I put in as a student in MSU’s engineering program, and I did not even have than many extracurricular activities. It is hard to imagine the time management skills required of today’s student athlete at a place like MSU.

A select few college athletes will go on to make money playing sports professionally. But, the old NCAA tag line still applies to most student athletes: about 99 percent of them are going to go pro in something other than sports. Furthermore, any athletic career is fleeting and can end in an instant. Student athletes need to be prepared for life after sports, whenever that life begins. In order for an institution like MSU to complete its mission, it needs to make sure that all its graduates enter the world with an education and a degree that will help them succeed.

To this end, running an athletic department is also hard. At least, doing it the right way is hard. In some places, the desire to succeed on the gridiron or on the hardwood has caused a few universities to cut corners. Most notably, a few years ago the University of North Carolina got caught running a defacto diploma mill for over a decade.

Closer to home, over a decade ago the University of Michigan was accused of having many of the same systems in place as were later found in Chapel Hill (albeit, without the plagiarism and grade fixing). A suspiciously high number of scholarship players were all enrolled in an obscure and remarkably “flexible” degree program called “General Studies.” Despite some words to the contrary, a plurality of Michigan’s current scholarship football players are still enrolled in this program.

But, what is the situation like in East Lansing? I decided to open up the media guide to take a look at the 2019 MSU football squad and see what kind of educational endeavors they are pursuing when they are not studying the playbook, scoring touchdowns, or chasing down the opposing quarterback.

Breaking Down the Roster

Table 1 below shows the list of MSU’s players that started at least four games during the 2019 season. I included a lot of information in this table, including the declared major of each player, the popularity rank of each major (and percentage of the male student body) based on data from the MSU office of the Registrar, the high school Rivals Recruiting Rating of each player, and if that player made the 2019 Fall Big Ten All Academic Team.

Table 1: Academic summary for the starters on the 2019 Michigan State Football team

As we can see, of the 34 players who started at least four games (which also indicates the sheer number of injuries MSU sustained last year) I count a total of 15 unique majors. In addition, there is clearly no clustering of players in any obscure majors. The only major shared by more than three starters is advertising management, which also happens to be the fourth most popular major on campus among men. Finally, a total of seven starters made the Academic All-Big Ten Team (23 percent).

As for the remaining scholarship players and significant contributors, those are summarized below in Table 2.

Table 2: Academic summary for the other scholarship players on the 2019 Michigan State Football team

This table contains a much larger group of student athletes (54 total) who as a group are pursuing twenty separate degree programs. In this case, there are three majors specifically that seem very popular: business (13 players), advertising management (eight players), and communications (eight players).

However, these three majors are also very popular in East Lansing in general, ranking first, fourth, and 15th in total male enrollment. Finally, a total of nine additional scholarship players in this list made the 2019 fall Academic All-Big Ten Team (17 percent of the players). I would also like to give a special shout-out to defensive back Dom Long, who made the All-Big Ten Team as a mechanical engineering major. Us engineers need to stick together.

To round out the roster, Table 3 shows the list of majors for the remaining walk-ons.

Table 3: Academic summary for the remaining walk-ons on the 2019 Michigan State Football team

For this final group of 36 hard-working student athletes, I count 20 unique majors, also well distributed, with 10 additional members of the 2019 fall Academic All-Big Ten Team (28 percent). The key point here is that this group of players has little-to-no chance of earning money by playing football. So, it is pretty important that these players are paying attention in class. They all will almost certainly be going pro in something other than sports immediately following graduation.

In this way, I would regard the group of walk-ons as a type of academic control group that represents the general male population at MSU, more or less. They are football players, but they are also “real students.”

From this point of view, if we compare the table of walk-ons to the tables for the scholarship players, there honestly isn’t any significant difference. In all cases, there is a healthy distribution of majors, no sign of clustering within an oddly obscure major, and the fraction of players on the Academic team is comparable.

In other words, it’s not just the walk-on who are “real students.” The team as a whole are true student athletes. Just to visualize this point, Figure 1 shows a series of pie charts showing the distribution of majors for the same groupings of players shown in Table 1-3.

Figure 1: Pie charts showing the distribution of majors for the starters, other scholarship players, and walk-ons on MSU’s 2018 football team

If I were to remove the labels from each chart, it would be difficult or impossible to tell which group was which. Not every university in the state can make that claim.

Academic All-Big Ten

As a point of reference, I was curious to see how the distribution of MSU’s starters, other scholarship athletes, and walk-ons on the Academic All-Big Ten Team compared to another school. So, I selected another in-state Big Ten school at random to see how they measured up. In this case, I already had the data for 2018 ready, so I present that below in Figure 2. A spot check of the 2019 list shows the same trend.

Figure 2: Distribution of starters, other scholarship players, and walk-ons on the 2018 Academic All-Big Ten Team for MSU and U of M

As we can see, if we just look at the total number of players, which is often the only number that casual observers see, U of M has almost 50 percent more student athletes that earned Academic honors compared to MSU. But, as is so often the case, if we look deeper into the number, a different trend appears.

MSU actually put twice as many starters on the Academic All-Big Ten team than did the University of Michigan, and two more scholarship athletes overall (18 vs. 16). However, it is true that Wolverine football walk-ons are absolutely crushing it in the class room. By my count almost two-thirds of walks-ons listed Michigan’s 2018 media guide made the Academic All-Big Ten team. Curious.

Academic Progress Rate

Finally, I wanted to say a few quick things about another metric that is often used to try to quantity how universities are doing in regard to graduating their players: the NCAA Academic Progress Rate (APR). Unfortunately, MSU’s score in this metric has been near or at the bottom of the Big Ten for the last several years.

Perhaps one of your Wolverine frenemies has mentioned this, unprompted, and perhaps also told you that Michigan has greatly improved in this area over the past few years. From 2008 to 2011, Michigan consistently trailed MSU in this metric, but since 2012, Michigan has improved substantially and now averages roughly third place in the Big Ten in the APR, which is a very familiar and comfortable place for them to be.

I have to admit that the APR, as a metric, always seemed a bit strange to me. According to the NCAA website, “Each student-athlete receiving athletically related financial aid earns one point for staying in school and one point for being academically eligible.” These points are then scaled to 1,000 and calculated as a four-year average.

Players who transfer out are not supposed to count against a team, but this calculation gets a little wonky for my taste. If nothing else, I have never seen an accounting that could explain why (for example) MSU only scored a 952 in 2018. Which players negatively impacted the score? Why? It is rare that one hears about a player not being able to participate due to bad grades, so I just find the whole metric sketchy. To me, it is not transparent, and I need to see the receipts.

As it turns out, I am not the only person who is skeptical about the value of the APR. In 2015, an article in Forbes called for the abandonment of the APR as it is “fundamentally flawed metrics” that it is “easily manipulated by high resource institutions,” which “allows the NCAA and its member institutions to essentially promote propaganda regarding student-athlete success in comparison to their peers.”

I, for one, can really think of only one other Big Ten school in the state that would consider using propaganda regarding student-athlete success to bolster the perception of their football program and negatively recruit against their peers. I, for one, also agree with the conclusion of the Forbes article.

At the end of the day, as Spartan fans, I think that we can all be proud of the academic paths on which that the students athlete who suit up in the green and white travel. They have clearly shown that being a student and an athlete are not mutually exclusive.

Go Green.