The class schedules for members of the UNM men’s tennis team are littered with subjects such as philosophy, computer science and accounting.
And recently these Lobos have been perfect. For five straight seasons, they have recorded a magic 1,000 score as figured by the NCAA and its invention, the Academic Progress Rate. Of the 21 sports UNM fosters, UNM men’s tennis stands alone in that regard.
A sports fan may prefer that the Lobos win five straight Mountain West Conference titles. (This season UNM did win its first regular-season men’s title since 2008).
But Henry Villegas has broader concerns. He carries the title as UNM’s associate athletic director of student development, which means he is responsible for the academic life and general well-being of the Lobos who play sports.
“The time demands of athletics and academics is one of the biggest challenges out there in terms of being a successful student-athlete,” Villegas said. “Obviously the NCAA has a limit on hours they can spend on athletics.
“But our students are competitive. They want to be the best at their sport, and it demands that extra effort.”
The NCAA limits athletes to 20 hours a week in-season. But if the athlete initiates a weight-lifting session, or a film study, that does not count. It does not include travel time, or time in the training room. According to estimates by the College Sports Research Institute, athletes spend close to 40 to 50 hours a week in their respective sports, especially in football.
The NCAA clings to its 20-hour rule, most likely because it wants to maintain a facade of amateurism. That’s hard to do if it acknowledges athletes are putting in 40 to 50 hours a week in pursuit of football excellence.
“If a kid wants to be the best at their sport, you can’t tell them not to lift weights or study film,” Villegas said.
So what’s an associate athletic director of student development to do?
One of the programs Villegas oversees is a freshman-mandated course on working the clock.
“We stress early with our freshmen to make sure they understand the importance of organization and time management,” he said.
“It’s the same challenge for every student-athlete at every institution in the country. And it’s every sport. For example, you have the skier who is on roller blades, working out, running hills.”
College athletes have it rough, but the NCAA tells us they are well-compensated with scholarships. Given that higher education costs as much as a FIFA bribe, perhaps it is right. (Although not all athletes are on full scholarships, and some scholarships can be yanked.)
Still, it is worth noting that schools such as UNM are spending more money these days on programs that target the mental health of athletes.
Villegas believes there is a correlation between success in the classroom and success on the field – and vice versa.
“The character, the work ethic it takes to be successful on the field carries over in terms of the classroom,” he said. “If a student is excellent on the field, when they go into the classroom, they know they are drawing a little attention. They want to make sure they represent themselves well. They don’t have that anonymity.”
Villegas can look at the APR numbers and see that UNM is meeting its academic pledge.
Fans can look at the standings and see that UNM teams such as women’s cross-country, men’s golf, men’s soccer and men’s basketball have had recent seasons where they won league titles and recorded APR’s of 1,000.
College administrators can look at the existence of APR and say that proves they are serious about academics. Never mind that athletic departments are also as much a business as Target. Never mind that athletic departments are painted in red ink. The model works for them.
Athletes can look at their watches. It’s time to study macroeconomics, or the tendencies of Colorado State’s free safety. Keep moving. Win the classroom. Win the game.