Academics, athletes or both? A personal reflection of an atmospheric scientist.


As a scientist and professor of the atmosphere, I mainly write about weather, climate and science. Sometimes I tinker with the boundaries of my journalistic “corridors” because I have a lot on my mind, but I always find a connection with my main subject. Last weekend my family and I watched the new season of Last chance U. It’s a show about junior college athletics, redemption, and academics. A central theme of many of the episodes was the struggle for athletic excellence within the context of academic realities. As the father of two K-12 student-athletes and a former high school athlete in two sports, I began to think about the dynamics of academics and sports as we went through the 8 episodes. I offer a personal point of view based on multiple experiences.

Marshal Shepherd

Recently, Dacula High School Head Basketball Coach Byron Wilson invited me to speak to students at his basketball camp in Metro Atlanta. I highlighted the importance of academics for the group of elementary, middle and high school players. I reminded them that they are “student” athletes. From a maturity perspective, I understand that the path to success for most student-athletes involves academics, not sports. According to the NCAA,

Less than 2% of NCAA student-athletes become professional athletes. In reality, most student-athletes depend on academics to prepare them for life after college. Education is important. There are nearly half a million NCAA student-athletes, and most of them will turn pro in something other than sports.

In other words, this represents 2 out of 100 students. Even with students Last chance U, their goal of competing at the “next” college level depended on meeting certain academic criteria.

Coach Byron Wilson

The show depicts the struggles of a few athletes, but it doesn’t highlight the fact that many of the student-athletes on the team have likely reached academic milestones without too much drama. A common narrative in sports journalism is to present the story of athletes from difficult family or socio-economic circumstances overcoming their challenges. These stories should be celebrated. It’s easy to sit down and judge a student negatively because he or she only sees “sport” as the only way out of a personal situation. Sometimes I have to check myself on this perspective. However, a more nuanced consideration reveals that personal “marinades” of education, access, and resources are undeniable influences.

In addition, a study in the Social Science Journal revealed that within certain demographic groups, particularly African American males, there is an overrepresentation in athletics and this is likely related to intentional and aggressive socialization by peers, parents, and support structures. The study concluded with the finding that some groups place too much emphasis on achievement in athletics compared to academics. After reading what I just wrote, I encourage you to think about how many Facebook and social media posts you see from parents about touchdowns, dunks, homers rather than the honor roll, AP scores and test results. I’ve even observed parent-shaming for publishing academic metrics of achievement as the number of yards in the game or points scored are celebrated. Do I have witnesses?


I grew up with a single mom in Canton, Georgia, and was always out in the yard catching bugs in mason jars as a kid. After a bee sting revealed a severe allergy, I decided to do my 6th grade science project on the weather. This project, “Can a 6th grader predict the weather”, literally changed my life. Years later, I’m a professor of atmospheric science, former president of the American Meteorological Society, and former research meteorologist at NASA. While I loved science, I also loved sports. As a kid, I played every sport, but thrived in basketball and tennis. Although lettering in both sports in high school, tennis was the sport I really excelled at. This is where the story comes back to circumstances and opportunities.

At that time, the best tennis players were trained by camps, academies and courses in Florida and other expensive places. My mother is a retired educator and a single mother. I had everything I needed to succeed in life, but the reality for me is that those resources just weren’t available to me. The meteorology was. I chose to forgo sports (at least as a first option) and focus on the physics and computational sciences that would define my career. My background could have been different, but the value of education was always emphasized. And by the way, there are many contemporary student-athletes who have strong mentorship, strong family support, and nurturing values. I think these stories also need to be told.

Which brings me to my original question. Sporty, academic or both? The answer must be academic or both. A 2013 article in the Harvard Political Review points out:

For the 2011–2012 school year, nearly 4.5 million boys and about 3.2 million girls, or a total of about 7.7 million, participated in high school sports teams. This increase from 2010 to 2012 is not aberrant; sports participation has increased for twenty-two consecutive years… While sports participation has increased, American educational rankings relative to other countries in the world have continued to fall disturbingly. At the 2012 Summer Olympics, the United States won more gold medals than any other country. Yet Americans accept not first but 31st in world math education, 23rd in world science education, and 14th in reading compared to these global competitors.

John Urschel understood these numbers. He has taken his retirement from the Baltimore Ravens at age 26 to pursue a doctorate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He understood that his “exit” was not based exclusively on sports. Reading this, I hope it’s clear that I’m a strong supporter of the sport. It builds character, teaches important life skills, conditions the body, and promotes team building or leadership skills. My point is that it’s important for parents and children to understand that athletics and academics need to work together given the realities of that 2% figure mentioned above. And even with the 2% who are able to make a temporary living by playing sports, the prospect of injury, retirement or a non-renewed contract looms.

Marshall Shepherd and AMHQ


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