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Creating a Successful Student-Athlete

Creating a Successful Student-Athlete
Discipline, focus and hard work are just a few attributes, says advising expert Dr. Ruth Darling

By Kendra Hamilton

Critics of big-time college sports have been working for decades to control the rampant rise in commercialization on campus — and to hold the line on academic integrity. But the balancing act is a difficult one — as 2003, a year that saw academic scandals at St. Bonaventure University, University of Georgia and Fresno State University, to name just a few, amply attested.
Black Issues interviewed one of the great champions in this area: Dr. Ruth Darling, president of the board of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) and member of the NCAA academic, eligibility and compliance cabinet that advised a sweeping new set of reforms put in place in fall 2003.
Darling is also associate provost at University of Tennessee-Knoxville and director of the school’s Thornton Athletic Student Life Center. The university has produced standout scholar athletes like Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback who graduated with a No. 1 ranking in his speech communications major, and Kara Lawson, named last year’s female Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar by Black Issues In Higher Education.

BI: What do you think the challenges are in the current academic advising environment for the student athlete?
RD: We have to remember that the student athletes are extraordinarily passionate about their sports, and that is why they have chosen, in many cases, to attend a given institution. Research shows that they connect with the coach, are drawn to the facilities, are attracted by the number of times they will appear on television — these are all very important issues to a Division I athlete, especially one who is thinking about a possible pro career. Academic advisers must consistently integrate the student’s athletic passion with the goals of learning in a higher education culture.
What does it mean to be a successful student? What does it mean to be a successful athlete? It requires the same set of skills and abilities. It demands discipline; it demands focus; it requires setting goals and meeting those goals; it requires being able to face adversity, and it requires meeting challenges aggressively and with integrity. Successful student athletes approach their sport in this manner and must approach their studies and degree progress in the same way. 
There are a number of institutions that are moving their academic support programs, as the University of Tennessee has done, from the athletic department into an academic affairs unit. This is an important reform that was recommended by the Knight Commission. The NCAA supports this change. Academic support programs need to be placed within an academic affairs unit, the unit ultimately responsible for student learning and development on college campuses.

BI: What do you feel is the secret to motivating young people to see themselves as student-athletes rather than just as athletes?
RD: I’ve worked with a number of student- athletes over the years who would say, “OK, I’m going to be a psychology major. But I’m really going to play pro or compete professionally. So it doesn’t make any difference” (what I do or how I perform in school). I’ll suggest, “Let’s think about this a minute, about what this major will teach you about being that pro football player. You’re going to learn about motivation, you’re going to learn about persuasion, you’re going to learn about figuring out how people think. All of these skills and the knowledge will help you out on the field. And whether you end up on the field or coaching or in the corporate world, you will take this knowledge, this degree with you.” Often, their eyes light up. “Oh, I never thought about it that way!” I think helping students make this connection is one of the most important things we do.

BI: How do you help students to resist temptation in an environment where there is constant pressure to do things the easy way, for example, to let that student or that T.A. write that paper for them?
RD: I keep trying to tie it back to what they have to do to be successful as an athlete and successful in life. You can’t have someone lift your weights for you. You can’t have someone else go in and memorize the playbook for you. You’ve got to go to class and fulfill your responsibilities as a student-athlete with integrity and pride. The bottom line is that connection:  If you’re not a student, you can’t be a student-athlete. They must make progress on their degree. Sometimes, if anything, that is the hook.

BI: What do you see as the best thing to have happened and what do you think is the biggest challenge?
RD: I think it is the same answer to both questions. The NCAA, in the academic progress toward degree requirements have established a new set of academic initiatives that were implemented starting with the fall ’03 freshman class. (These will include incentive and disincentives that may result in schools losing scholarships or even eligibility for postseason competition if they don’t meet certain academic progress rates.) I was a member of an NCAA consultants’ group that worked on these standards. We reviewed data, from a 10-year period, for student-athletes who had graduated. The question was asked, “At certain points, where were the students relative to their academic progress?” We also asked, “Was  it possible to predict academic success based on that progress or benchmark?”
The group carefully reviewed the data and proposed legislation that was adopted. At the end of every year there are benchmarks that students must meet in satisfying academic progression requirements. These requirements are more rigorous than they have been in the past and will certainly present challenges to all involved in D-1 collegiate athletics. Probably the most significant change is that, by the end of a student-athlete’s sophomore year, he/she must complete 40 percent of a specified degree program. We must work very closely with the students and their academic advisers to keep as many doors open as we can in relation to their choice of major. As college students, they must be allowed to maintain a certain degree of flexibility to change their minds. Changing, learning and growing is what college is all about — we should not unnecessarily restrict that type of learning in a student-athlete’s  experience. And at the same time I think this is one of the best initiatives currently being implemented. It is an attempt to change the culture: the students, those few who come in thinking they can be a student- athlete but not a student; and also the attitude of some coaches who might neglect the academic goals of our undergraduates.
I often use the metaphor of a three-legged stool or a pyramid to illustrate a model for student-athlete academic learning and support — one of the strongest structures you can build. You need the coach; you need the academic adviser/faculty, and you need the student-athlete. If any one person fails to fulfill his/her responsibility and fails to be academically accountable, that stool is going to tip over, the pyramid will collapse. 

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