In Praise of True Student-Athletes

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Winner of the Directors' Cup 19 years in a row. Winner of at least one national championship for 37 consecutive years—a record unmatched by any other school in the nation. From 1976 to 2012, 71 Olympic gold medals, 46 silver and 26 bronze.

Stanford is truly the "home of champions," and these are just a few of our student-athletes' many achievements. As University president, I am the Cardinal's No. 1 fan; no one cheers louder than I do at our games—well, almost no one. But wins on the field are not the only statistics worth tracking.

There has been much discussion recently about the professionalization of college sports and justifiable concern over whether today's student-athletes are getting the education they need and deserve.

At Stanford, we are committed to the academic success of our student-athletes. They are held to the same high standards as any Stanford student, and we work to ensure that they have the same opportunities. The focus and discipline that drive them to excel in their sports serve them well in their studies and in handling the demands of being a Stanford student-athlete. Their academic and athletic pursuits provide complementary learning opportunities: The critical reasoning skills and analytical learning in the classroom or lab complement the leadership, teamwork and sportsmanship skills that student-athletes need on the field or court.

Chiney Ogwumike, captain of the women's basketball team and one of the top players in the country, is a great example. An international relations major, Chiney spent eight weeks in Nigeria last year, working with the Human Rights Committee of the National Assembly, as well as participating in basketball camps and after-school programs for underprivileged youth. And it was Chiney—sporting so-called "nerd glasses"—whose freestyle rap video, "Nerd City Kids," sparked the Nerd Nation movement, reflecting the pride our student-athletes take in being successful in the classroom and on the field or court. (Chiney is profiled here.)

That scholar-athlete tradition is also exemplified by Cardinal football. After another great year on the field—during which Stanford made its second consecutive appearance at the Rose Bowl—the team also earned the American Football Coaches Association's Academic Achievement Award for its 100 percent graduation rate for the second consecutive year.

And the football team is distinguished by the number of its athletes who earn degrees in challenging fields, pursue double majors and work toward multiple degrees. Nickelback Usua Amanam, '14, is working on co-terminal undergraduate and master's degrees in energy resources engineering. Last year's Rose Bowl Game Defensive MVP, Usua is also a two-time Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention. Others, such as Tyler Gaffney, '13, leave to play professional sports, then return to earn their Stanford degrees. After playing professional baseball, Tyler is completing a double major in sociology and psychology.

Stanford prides itself on academic excellence, but last year, the Cardinal set records. Thirteen Stanford varsity athletic teams were honored for academic achievement with NCAA Public Recognition Awards for scoring in the top 10 percent of all squads in their sports nationwide. These awards are an amazing achievement; Stanford teams accounted for almost half of the total in the Pac-12.

Performing at these levels takes tremendous discipline and dedication. It is also an excellent training ground for leadership. Last year, four students founded Stanford Athletes and Allies Together to offer support to athletes of all gender identities and produced a video, "If You Can Play, You Can Play." Featuring more than two dozen Cardinal athletes and their coaches, as well as athletic director Bernard Muir, this acclaimed public service announcement is a powerful statement about the University's commitment to diversity and exemplifies Stanford at its best.

These are the kinds of leadership and success that make me so proud of our student-athletes. They are true role models, representing the best in intercollegiate athletics.

John Hennessy was the president of Stanford University.