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When Academics And Athletics Collide

When Academics And Athletics Collide
How could the most prominent member of a university’s most
prominent sport become ineligible at the high point of the season?

By Ernest Holsendolph

When things are going right, there’s nobody more popular on the college campus than the student-athlete — the gifted undergrad who can hit the clutch jumper or get that vital first down. Even better is the athlete who can step into the classroom and hold his or her own against students who have none of his or her extracurricular commitments.

Coming into his last season, Chris McCray was that sort of guy, the scoring leader and captain of the big-time University of Maryland Terrapins, a perennial basketball power in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But just as Maryland was poised to make a run at the NCAA tournament, dubbed March Madness, a devilishly maddening thing happened.

McCray, rolling well as an athlete, faltered and fell as a student. He was declared ineligible for the spring semester and was dropped from the team.

The repercussions were immediate and devastating for the Terrapins. The team floundered without their leader and missed the cut for “The Big Dance.” How could the most prominent member of the school’s most prominent sport become ineligible at the critical point of his final season?

McCray, according to ESPN, ran afoul of a relatively new NCAA rule that requires student-athletes to remain eligible by passing enough credit hours each semester to stay on pace for graduation. McCray reportedly failed to pass six hours of course credits that he needed in the fall semester. That lapse, a matter university sources say the young man had been warned about, cost him his right to play basketball in the spring, his final semester.

Maryland, for student privacy reasons, did not want to discuss the specifics of McCray’s fall from grace. But talks with veteran academic counselors and NCAA officials offer some hints. They also underline the complexity of stiffening eligibility guidelines in college sports. Under pressure from the NCAA, universities nationwide are scrambling to increase the graduation rates of their student-athletes and maintain the academic credibility of their programs.

McCray’s ill-timed academic stumble illustrates one obvious but often unmentioned point — the always-grueling role of the student athlete is now tougher than ever.

While it is undoubtedly a challenge, many student-athletes manage to expertly navigate life on and off the field. Paul Robeson, a man for all seasons, is one example. The football standout at Rutgers University went on to become a world-renowned singer and thespian. And David Robinson earned a mathematics degree at the U.S. Naval Academy before becoming the face of the

NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. He eventually went on to win two national championships and was named one of the Top 50 NBA players of all time.

A lot has changed in the last few years, however. The life of the student-athlete is more structured and the athletes now come in several varieties. Some cruise onto campus for a year or two before chasing their dreams in the NBA or the NFL. Others qualify for varsity sports but must make new career choices after realizing that the professional ranks are not in their futures. But for most collegiate athletes, the college game is the end of the line. There is no professional league and no multimillion-dollar contract waiting for them down the road.

To handle that mix of realities, most schools have instituted elaborate guidance programs designed to balance academic and athletic commitments while leaving some flexibility for the student to enjoy the college experience. And all colleges are under more pressure than ever from the NCAA to graduate more athletes, and not just drop them after their eligibility expires.

Learning the Ropes
Mary McElroy, director of intercollegiate athletics at Georgia State University, has held a variety of assignments that have kept her in close contact with academic advisers and student-athletes. She is the only Black female athletics director at a Division I institution that isn’t a historically Black college or university. The former U.S. Marine graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and worked there and at Georgia Tech before taking the reins at Georgia State.

“Getting a student, male or female, through the experience of being a student and athlete starts with recruiting,” she says. “Ideally you want a recruit who not only can play but also has a life plan or has given serious thought to the future.”

While some young men, primarily football and basketball players, would just as soon roll the dice and hope for pro careers, McElroy says athletic departments look for students with more realistic thinking, and they urge the students to take a more complete view of college preparation.

“When the student shows up on campus, we sit down with him or her, the coach, the administrator for the student’s particular sport and the academic adviser,” she says.

“At that point we all look at high school grades, the SAT or ACT scores and listen to the student’s aspirations, and weigh that against the load from the athletics side. And from that combined information we put together a plan that can let him play and stay on course for graduation,” she says.

Georgia State has an enrollment of some 25,000 students, mostly commuters, making it one of the biggest in the state. But the school does not yet field the high-powered teams of many colleges its size. However, GSU has in place a method of monitoring athletes’ weekly classroom status, and holds meetings when necessary to get wobbly students back on course.

Newly instituted NCAA rules now require that student-athletes at all member schools, large or small, stay on course for graduation. While the concept may seem obvious, many athletic programs have historically shown only a passing interest in the academic progress of their athletes. The new system also demands that students take real, matriculating classes, not fluffy electives that earn no points toward degree requirement.

The top guy responsible for athlete support services at Auburn University, a relatively consistent Division I power, says developing a long-term plan for students’ athletic and classroom success is paramount at the recruitment stage.

“We must listen closely to the expectations of parents and students and take their goals seriously, and then ‘personalize’ the academic plan for the student,” says Virgil Starks, senior associate director of athletics at Auburn.

That sentiment has been expressed for decades by other administrators and coaches, often as mere lip service. But Starks says it had better be more than that, because otherwise the student-athlete’s chances of successfully navigating the system are slim.

Cathie Humbold, a sports adviser at Auburn, says, “Time is the most precious resource any of us has, but especially for the student-athlete — and so we must help them allocate time, and consider time in helping them formulate a plan.”

Time management is such an essential skill because student-athletes have to pack more into a 24-hour day than almost any other type of student on campus. For many athletes, the day starts at 5:00 a.m. and continues until late evening. At most big-name institutions, athletes have assigned study times to make sure they are keeping up with their coursework. They must also get to practice every day and find time to hit the workout room. Add the stress of travel and intercollegiate competition to the mix during the season as well.

All-Star Academics
Ricardo Harmon, a recent graduate of Paine College in Augusta, Ga., played varsity baseball, and got mostly A’s in his courses. A computer studies major, Harmon found after graduation that he needed several certificates to qualify for the job that he wanted. He enrolled in the specialized training he needed, gained certification and now, at age 24, holds down a $45,000-a-year job as a network administrator for an international freight forwarding company.

“We didn’t have all those systems that big colleges have,” says Harmon, “I learned very early that I had to use my time more wisely than other students and stay on a schedule. For instance I knew that if a paper was due in two weeks, I had better start right away because I knew that if I left it for the last few days, the time pressure might prevent me from doing it,” he says.

That kind of discipline may explain why some student-athletes like David Castillo, the offensive lineman for the Florida State University football team, are being hailed not just for their abilities on the field, but also for their classroom work.

Still, for all the planning, for all the NCAA controls, many collegiate athletes are just barely managing to maintain their eligibility. In football and men’s basketball, where the pressure to perform is the most extreme, graduation rates lag well behind those of the general student population. In both cases, some students head to the pros early. Others come in unprepared for the rigors of academic life and never really find their footing.

And then there’s the sad case of Maryland’s McCray, who lost his eligibility going into his final semester. Experts say such things are bound to happen when athletes cut it too close when trying to stay eligible.

While McCray’s situation marred an otherwise stellar career and derailed the basketball team’s dreams of a March Madness bid, it did show that the system works. Star athlete or not, when McCray failed to live up to his academic responsibilities, he found himself not on the bench, but off the team. That ought to be a clear enough signal to students, coaches and advisers alike that academic standards are being taken seriously.

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