Ellis Blake Hidalgo
Mercury Staff

Survey reveals most student athletes prioritize academics above athletics

With the fall term having kicked off, student athletes around campus once again began the process of balancing their academic demands with the commitment they’ve made to their teams. Discussing how they deal with the pressures of both the university and its sports, UTD coaches and players shed some light on how athletics affects their lives, even after they’ve graduated.

Head men’s basketball coach Terry Butterfield said he felt lucky to be working with athletes who put academics first, and stressed the benefits of the academic leanings of UTD. 

“You have to understand that UT Dallas is a school that’s made up of very exceptional, bright kids,” Butterfield said. “So, my role is the basketball coach. Obviously, I have a vested interest in all the kids doing well, but in order for the guys to get into school here, they already have to come with outstanding credentials.” 

In a student athlete survey done by The Mercury, 71% of 35 respondents reported that being a student athlete put more pressure on their academics than their athletics. Basketball player and biomedical engineering junior Kelden Pruitt said there were times where he had to juggle conference tournaments and his exams shortly after. 

“I was able to make classes, but I had games three nights in a row … and I had two exams next Monday. First there’s pregame meals, shoot-arounds, practices and then the games at night,” Pruitt said. “That was a situation where I’m thinking in the moment that I’m probably not going to get to experience this a whole lot, and studying makes me think, ‘maybe I could do good enough on this test without studying a whole lot.’” 

Head softball coach James Kling said he and other coaches make sure the athletes are keeping up with their studies, often making sure they study during trips. With UTD student athletes needing a 2.5 GPA or above to play, Kling said the team will often host study halls before games to keep up with their academics. 

“If they’re not passing their classes, they can’t play sports,” Kling said. “So they kind of work hand-in-hand and if we find out from a professor or from the student themselves that they’re having a hard time in multiple classes, we will say, ‘Hey, let’s not go to practice for the next couple of days.’”

  Despite the need to balance between athletics and academics throughout their school careers, student athletes don’t often pursue sports as a career. In the survey, 85% of UTD student athletes reported that they don’t aspire to play sports professionally after graduation. Softball player and healthcare management senior Jessica Vlasek was named Academic All-ASC in 2019, an award given to athletes who maintained a 3.0 GPA or above during the season. Despite her life-long softball career, Vlasek explained that she didn’t want to devote her life to the sport.

“I’ve played since I was 6, so softball has never not been a part of my life,” Vlasek said. “Honestly for me, I think that I’ve always understood that it was going to stop eventually … and that I wanted to approach a different career and a different trajectory in life and that softball wasn’t the end-all be-all”

Butterfield said his gratitude for his players’ commitment to the program was what pushed him to do more for them. He said student athletes often reference him to employers when pursuing job opportunities and careers after graduation. 

“I’m there for them and I tell the guys, “loyalty is a two-way street. If you’re loyal to the program and you give us everything you got while you’re going to school, then I certainly want to make myself available to you as time goes forward,” Butterfield said. “Because obviously I spent a lot of time with the guys over the course of four years … I know these guys on a pretty high level. I know what they’re capable of. I feel like that’s something that an employer can’t get from someone else. So when I’m called upon to help a guy I’m all-in.”

Butterfield said student athletes learn valuable teamwork skills, which he noted are especially useful to businesses nowadays.  He said it was enjoyable watching his players grow and go on to gain life skills through their time on his team.

        “I feel like we’ve had a very strong team over the years here made up of guys that were very team-first in their approach to everything,” Butterfield said. “So, you know, I think that a lot of what we do gets them ready for the real world. They have to be able to deal with all kinds of people at all different kinds of levels if they’re going to be successful and I think that their intercollegiate experience plays into that.”

        Pruitt said his coaches’ confidence in his success put them at ease about his grades, and that he was glad his teammates offer a similar assurance.

“I do better when I don’t feel pressure from coaches. Like, ‘Hey, how’s the test going? You keeping the grades up?’ That’s not to say they are,” Pruitt said. “They’re just like, ‘Hey, however you’re doing, I’m proud of what you do.’ It’s like that. That’s a good support system for me.”

Graphic by Ellis Blake Hidalgo | Mercury Staff