Collegiate athletes, particularly those who play football or basketball for a big name school, have a place in society at the top of the ladder. Children idolize them, adults place money on their performance, and other athletes want to be them. These students usually play Division I sports, and they were recruited by big-name schools and receive scholarships because of their skills. There are other levels of collegiate sports available, though. The NCAA regulates three divisions of sports at over 1,200 institutions, and schools themselves may also offer club sports or intramurals. If you have any questions about playing sports in college, read on.


Why should I consider being a collegiate athlete?

Being a collegiate athlete is busy, rewarding, tiring, and fun, all at the same time. It can also distract you from the main focus of college: academics and getting a degree. Student-athletes need to be able to do it all, meaning that they need to succeed in their classes while also succeeding at their sports, if they intend to play throughout college. If you aren’t intending to make a career out of playing your sport, college is the last time that you can really compete at something you love before giving it up completely or joining a low-key seasonal adult league outside of work. If you are hoping to make a career out of sports, playing in college can be your ticket into the big leagues. For example, professional basketball recruiters watch college-level games to find the up-and-coming stars.

What are the benefits of playing college sports?

  • You can learn time management.
  • You can develop your leadership skills.
  • You can develop your communication skills.
  • You can get into good physical condition.
  • You will make friends with similar interests.
  • You can spend your time playing the sport you love.
  • You may receive an athletic scholarship.
  • Playing sports can relieve academic stress.
  • You will learn from a coach who has a passion for and knowledge of your sport.
  • You will get to travel to places you might not otherwise visit.

What are the drawbacks of playing college sports?

  • The time commitment could negatively affect your academics and friendships outside of sports.
  • You may miss out on relaxed weekends and evenings because of games and tournaments.
  • Depending on the skills of your teammates, you may not get as much playtime as you hope.
  • You may get less sleep than you would otherwise because of early practices and late games.
  • There’s a pervasive “dumb jock” stereotype that your classmates and professors may apply to you.
  • You could get severely injured.

Which sports are offered?

Each school offers its own set of sports between intramurals, club teams, and it’s NCAA membership. While the NCAA regulates 24 different sports throughout the fall, winter, and spring, not all sports are offered at every school. Your options broaden if you look to club sports and intramurals. Larger schools will typically offer more NCAA opportunities and have both club and intramural teams. A smaller liberal arts college may only offer club and intramural teams. Check with your (prospective) institution if you’re hoping to play a particular sport at a certain skill level.

Who can play?

If you are interested in playing Division I or Division II sports, you have to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center. Here, you can submit your SAT or ACT scores and your high school transcripts, showing your current GPA and that you have completed appropriate course requirements for college.

Division III sports teams are typically easier to join. Students may be recruited through the athletic departments at their colleges but also may be permitted to try out or walk onto a team. Contact the athletic department and head coach of your prospective team for more information.

As for school-regulated sports, anyone can try out or join. Club teams may require tryouts, have a limited number of positions, and make cuts. However, if there are multiple club teams for the same sport, less competitive students may be placed on a lower team instead of cut from the sport entirely. Intramural sports are open to everyone.

Does it cost money to play sports in college?

Depending on the playing level, the sport, and college funding, students may be required to pay for uniforms, shoes, travel, and other related costs. Costs are minimized for NCAA sports (uniforms and travel are provided, for example), but students who participate in club sports may be asked to pay dues, since they are responsible for their own uniforms and travel. Intramural sports are likely free (minus any athletic wear necessary for the sport, like shin guards or cleats), since students pay an activities fee each year at college that covers the maintenance of facilities.

What is the time commitment like?

For Division I athletes, the time commitment is intense, both during the playing season and afterward. Rules placed by the NCAA attempt to limit the amount of time that students spend on their sports and not their academics, but this tends to fall by the wayside when a national championship is in sight, for example. In 2010, Division I student-athletes were spending an average of 40 hours each week practicing and playing. According to the same study, at least 70% of Division I men’s football, basketball, and baseball players said that they spend at least as much time on their sports in the off-season as they did during the season. This percentage is slightly lower for female athletes.

Division II and Division III athletes may spend less time practicing, but the NCAA limit is still 20 hours weekly during the season (or eight hours weekly during the off season). Many coaches are willing to push the limit in exchange for results. The rule is full of loopholes that make it easy for coaches to require players to practice for more than 20 hours. For example, coaches may have “voluntary” practices or conditioning, but everyone on the team knows that attendance isn’t really voluntary. Away games also take time to get to (time which may not be factored into the limit), and once you’re there, you’ll be with the team the entire time, practicing and playing. Entire weekends may be lost to the game with no time leftover for academics.

For club sports, depending on how competitive the team and league are, the time commitment can still be significant. Intramural sports are going to have the lowest time commitment of all levels of collegiate sports. Games may be once or twice a week for an hour, practices may take up the same amount of time or be nonexistent. Your IM buddies are unlikely to freak out or penalize you if you have to miss a practice to study for an exam. For the student who wants to try it all, IM or club sports are going to make it easiest to also have a life outside of the team.

Is there a GPA requirement to join the team or continue to play during the season?

Yes. It depends on the division of NCAA play, but the NCAA does require that all student-athletes complete a certain number of credits annually and maintain a minimum GPA. Division I student-athletes are NCAA-eligible for five years, meaning that each year, at least 20% of their degree coursework needs to be completed. There isn’t a first-year percentage requirement, but by the end of their sophomore years, students must have finished at least 40% of their credits. At the very least, students must complete six credits per semester and meet the GPA standards that are set out by each individual institution. Failure to complete credits or maintain a satisfactory GPA could lead to academic probation or suspension from the team.

Division II student-athletes must complete 24 credits each year (with a maximum of six credits earned during the summer). Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to be eligible to play; this is verified each fall. Division II student-athletes are allowed to play during four seasons over the course of five years and must enroll for at least nine credits each nonsummer academic term.

There are no GPA requirements for Division III student-athletes. They must, however, enroll for at least 12 credits each semester, trimester, or quarter. Academic standards are maintained by each institution, and students should check with their schools to determine the minimum GPA and number of credit hours necessary to make satisfactory progress toward a degree and remain in good academic standing.

Students who are playing either club sports or IM sports should refer to the rules of their institutions regarding eligibility. Typically, IM sports are considered extracurricular activities as opposed to teams, and therefore, they may not be subject to any rules at all.

If you find that being a student-athlete is leading to you having trouble in your classes, talk to both your coach and your professors. Your coach will want you to succeed in class so that you can remain eligible to play. He or she may therefore be understanding of your need to attend tutoring sessions or schedule time to visit with professors. Your professor, on the other hand, may be able to suggest particular student services that may be of use to you, put you in touch with a TA, and offer advice on how to succeed in the class.

Are athletes regularly drug tested?

NCAA Division I and Division II student-athletes are subject to random drug tests on campus and all NCAA student-athletes may be subject to drug tests at the time of national championships. An athletic director may receive no more than two days’ notice of a random drug test for its team, but often, tests are spur of the moment and athletes are not notified beforehand. In the case of national championships, student-athletes may be drug tested immediately after the completion of a game.

Typically, the entire team is not tested, but rather a random selection of student-athletes are required to complete a urinalysis (the testing of a urine specimen for banned drug content). Selected students are required to arrive at a drug-testing site at a given time and day and must produce a urine sample, under observation by an individual of the same sex, at that time. Students cannot leave (with the exception of attending class or exercising) until they have provided adequate samples that are not considered dilute.

Banned drug classes include:

  • Anabolic agents (steroids)
  • Stimulants (caffeine, amphetamines, etc.)
  • Diuretics
  • Street drugs (heroin, marijuana, etc.)
  • Peptide hormones and analogues (human growth hormone)
  • Antiestrogens
  • Beta-2 agonists
  • Alcohol and beta blockers, for rifle events only

The NCAA also recommends caution when considering dietary or nutritional supplements as they are often contaminated with banned drugs as a result of not being well regulated; this can result in positive drug tests. The NCAA suggests that student-athletes bring any supplements that they are considering to the athletic department for review and approval.

What are the consequences for failing an NCAA drug test?

If a student-athlete tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs, he or she will immediately lose one year of NCAA eligibility and cannot compete for 365 days from the day of the test. If a student-athlete tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs a second time, all remaining eligibility is lost.

If a student tests positive for a street drug, he or she will not be allowed to compete for half of the season in any of the sports that he or she plays. For example, a student-athlete who plays two sports and who tests positive for a street drug the first time will not be eligible to compete in half of their basketball season or half their soccer season. If a student-athlete tests positive for a street drug a second time, the student will lose one year of eligibility and cannot compete for 365 days from the day of the test.

Failure to report for a drug test is treated the same way as a first-time performance-enhancing drug positive result, so students who neglect to show up will lose one year of eligibility. Students who are found guilty of tampering with their drug test will be immediately removed from competition and withheld from competing for 730 days from the date of the tampering offense.

Will being an athlete help me in the future?

study that compared former NCAA student-athletes to nonathletes found that overall, former athletes were more involved with their professions, enjoying the opportunities presented to them, and getting along with their supervisors. The gap was significant for females: 48% of student-athletes enjoyed and were involved with their professions, while only 41% of nonathletes felt the same way. This could be a mere correlation, but it is also possible that student-athletes learned time management skills, leadership skills, determination, and persistence during their time on a team. The same study also found that former student-athletes were more likely to enjoy positive social relationships, remain physically fit, and to enjoy their current location.

This isn’t to say that nonathletes cannot thrive as they get older, only that student-athletes may have a leg up in developing skills that help them in the future. It is much easier to remain healthy and physically active if exercise has always been a part of your daily routine, for example. Similarly, someone who has been surrounded by teammates for the majority of their time in college may find it easier to make friends and maintain social relationships than someone who is more introverted and booksmart. These skills that student-athletes learn over time in high school and college may help them secure jobs after graduation.

Page last updated: 10/2017