Why I Chose School Over Sports

Mere months ago, one of the marker events of the high school spring schedule transpired: sports signing. All the proud family members were there, many pictures were taken, cake was handed out, and merry celebration ensued for the numerous student-athletes heading to college on athletic scholarships. Not only was there a large number of signees, but there was also a great portion headed to Division I universities.

Of course, I wasn't actually there for the event. I would later see the pictures posted on Facebook, later see everyone in my calculus class eating the complimentary cake, later watch as the elated athletes walked through crowded hallways with their bouquet of balloons. I managed to avoid spring sports signing altogether--a rather incredible feat considering what a big deal it was at my high school.

Yet I came dangerously close to actually being at sports signing. I was close to not merely being a bystander among parents and friends, but sitting with the rest of the athletes, proudly signing off on a four-year commitment. Just over a month before the sports signing occurred, I was offered a cross country/track-and-field scholarship to a Division II school. The offer was by no means a full ride--it only covered a sixth of the cost annually--but it was certainly enough to tempt me into accepting.

I'm getting ahead of myself though. Unlike most of the athletes that were at the sports signing, I didn't know heading into senior year that I even had the option of running in college. Though I've always been reasonably good, I never thought I was good enough. My senior season disproved that theory, however, and near the time of the cross country State Championships in October--when I had numerous successful races under my belt--I was looking at several college running programs.

I only ended up attending one school on an official visit, which was the single one that offered me a scholarship. And though I was vigorously recruited by only the one school, I had enough recruitment knowledge to say this: being recruited is exhausting work. Just a single school and I was always exchanging emails and playing phone-tag with coaches; not to mention all the new pressure it placed on me for the need to perform at cross country meets. When I was a sophomore, there was a senior runner on my high school team that ended up getting close to a full ride to a Division I school (with over three state champion titles on her head, it wasn't much of a surprise); I remember her telling me how fatigued she was from the whole recruitment process. She certainly had more coach interest than I did, and it showed with her countless schools visits and constant phone calls and emails.

Despite the tireless pursuit of recruitment, I did finally reach the end goal of a scholarship. Given that I was a rather late bloomer in the game, I hadn't been expecting much. The amount I was offered was more than I had been anticipating. After having finally received the scholarship, I hung up the phone happy with the offer. I proudly told my parents, both of whom were obviously ecstatic over the news of having less college to pay for.

The next day, however, my happiness began to deflate. My father, being the engineer he is, calculated out how much money I would make an hour with the scholarship offered. Taking the money offered, and the proposed time estimate of two hours for practice a day, his calculation came out to be only ten dollars an hour. That's just over what someone working at Starbucks or McDonalds makes.

I know it doesn't seem to be a fair comparison. I'm basically getting paid to run and stay in shape and do something I love while those guys are flipping burgers and filling coffee drinks. That's what everyone thinks about college athletics: students have the ability to get an education while still doing what they love. Some of these students, unlike me, do so on a full ride, so the Starbucks analogy doesn't even apply to them.

But in the end, it wasn't the money that made me call that coach back and turn down the offer. Frankly, at the end of my cross country season, I was considering running in college with no scholarship; I was considering doing the whole thing for free. The real reason I turned down that scholarship was for my future.

Many of us are aware of the Division I athletes that graduate from college with worthless degrees, or even those that don't graduate on account of the huge time commitment they had to sports. The statistics on this, though compelling, are still not the exact reason I decided not to take the scholarship. I know plenty of graduated athletes with good degrees who refute those statistics, ones who were able to evenly balance their education and sports. In fact, the cross country team at the school I was planning to join had the highest GPA of all the sports teams on campus.

I don't just want a good GPA, though. Granted, GPAs are a large part of success in college, yet they're not the only factor. There may be athletes that are able to balance good grades with doing sports, but I simply do not want to look back on my college years and see the only real thing I did with my time was run in a circle. I look at the athletes at the spring signing and think that their time in college will come down to tossing a football or kicking around a soccer ball. There are new, greater experiences I want to have, like having an undergraduate internship or a research job with a professor. I will still be able to run once I am out of college, and even be able to do so competitively with all the races held in the nation. But how many times will I really be able to be a part of an internship or do research or be a part of any of the clubs specific to college?

I have a cross country friend who will be attending a Division I school in the fall, and she barely has half of tuition covered with her scholarship. Though she is a good student and will likely graduate well off, her college time will be sunk running in circles. This is the sort of commitment I was nearly captured in, and I'm glad I decided against it. I will be attending school not only for my education, but for great experiences that will make me even more successful once I graduate. I plan to take huge strides forward in my career and future with my time in college, certainly not running in a circle to the same destination I started at.