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Can Athletics and Academics Coexist?
Colleges and universities wrestle with big-time sports

By Don Campbell
Athens, Georgia

It's halftime here in Bulldog Nation, where the University of Georgia football team is hosting the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

(Photo By Robin Nelson, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
92,000 fans pack the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium for most football games. The university fields winning teams and graduates a high percentage of its athletes.
What was supposed to be a cakewalk for the Bulldogs-it's homecoming, for Pete's sake-is deadlocked at 10 to 10. In the 50 plush sky suites that hover over 92,000 fans in Sanford Stadium, there are nervous looks and muted grumbling. But the mood brightens as the elite of Bulldog boosters turn their attention to chafing dishes piled high with catered delicacies. Wine is flowing almost as freely as the sweetened iced tea, and in the sky-suite foyer, dessert tables overflow with delectable sweets.

Suddenly, a buzz sweeps the crowd as an elevator door opens and out bounds Uga VI, Georgia's beloved snow-white English bulldog mascot, trailed by a retinue that includes several photographers and a beefy, uniformed police officer. At 55 pounds and sporting a 36-13 record after four years of prowling the sidelines, Uga (pronounced Ugg-ah) is the sixth of his family called to duty-all five of his mascot ancestors are buried in marble vaults on a hillside outside the stadium.

Straining at his leash, the red-sweatered Uga paws and snuffles his way toward the UGA Alumni Association suite, where he dutifully poses for dozens of pictures under the watchful eyes of his handlers and the Athens-Clarke County police officer.

For football fanatics and social gadflies alike, it doesn't get much better than this. No matter that the "Dogs" will only manage a meager three-point victory, or that down on the field, UGA President Michael Adams is getting booed by fans upset that he is forcing Georgia's legendary athletic director and football coach, Vince Dooley, to retire at the end of this school year.

The Saturday afternoon scene in Athens is a quintessential snapshot of how big-time football has come to dominate so much of college life in America. But there are no apologies offered for that on this campus. Because if the university celebrates its athletes lavishly, it also spares no expense in giving them the best academic support that money can buy.

And, according to the latest tally from the U.S. Department of Education, it's paying off.

For most of the season, the Georgia Bulldogs had the best graduation rate-67 percent-of any team in the Associated Press top-ten poll of Division 1 football. Although graduation rates tend to fluctuate from year to year, that was 13 percentage points higher than the national average of 54 percent, and put the Bulldogs well ahead of such football powerhouses as Texas, with a 19 percent graduation rate, the University of Southern California (45 percent), and Michigan (50 percent). With a ranking by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation's top-20 public universities, Georgia prides itself on being an institution that increasingly excels in both academics and athletics.

It offers some evidence that the NCAA is justified in claiming that athletes are performing better academically as a result of reforms instituted over the past two decades. But while the improvements in 2003 for collegiate sports as a whole are promising, yielding the highest graduation rates since statistics were first kept in 1984, the picture is complicated by the numbers attached to the big-money sports, football and basketball.

When scholarship athletes in all sports are included, 62 percent of those who entered colleges and universities six years ago graduated last year-three percentage points higher than the student body as a whole. But when the big-revenue sports are broken out, the numbers fall noticeably. Among all football players, 54 percent graduated, but the rate for African American football players was 49 percent. The overall rate for Division 1 male basketball players was 44 percent, but for African American males it was just 41 percent.

Moreover, there are statistics showing that 57 universities in Division 1 have not graduated a single black male basketball player in the past ten years.

(Photo By Robin Nelson, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
Rhonda Kilpatrick directs a tutoring and counseling program for University of Georgia football players.   

Critics, meanwhile, question whether comparing athletes' graduation rates with the rest of the student body is even valid, because of the special attention and lack of financial worries that scholarship athletes enjoy. They also contend that looking at graduation rates across the spectrum of college sports is misleading-academic success is not much of an issue, for example, for swimmers and tennis players. The focus, critics contend, should be on the top 20 schools competing for a spot in football's Bowl Championship Series, or in the "Sweet Sixteen" of basketball's NCAA playoffs.

The issue of graduation rates is heating up again because of actions being taken by the NCAA. Having already imposed tougher requirements for academic progress by athletes who entered college last fall, the NCAA is expected this spring to approve a major change in how graduation rates are calculated, a change that is expected to sharply increase graduation rates for schools which in the past lost players to the professional leagues or because of coaching changes.

The experience here at the University of Georgia demonstrates that athletics and academics can coexist to the benefit of both. Whether the subject is blocking or book learning, Georgia doesn't settle for second class. Among southeastern universities, for example, it routinely holds first or second place in the number of academic all-Americans and postgraduate scholars in football.

But it hasn't always been a pretty picture. Nearly two decades ago, an English professor named Jan Kemp was fired for challenging the university's preferential treatment of athletes. She sued the university, won a settlement in excess of a million dollars, and was reinstated. But the wreckage from the Kemp lawsuit later led the university's president to resign, and prompted Dooley, the only major figure left relatively unscathed, to place greater emphasis on the academic side of athletes' lives.

Today, on a campus that is smothered by monuments to sports icons and the marketing of red and black memorabilia, the focus on academic support for athletes is impressive.

It starts with an imposing new $7 million athletic academic center named for Rankin M. Smith Sr., a long-time UGA booster and former owner of the Atlanta Falcons professional football team, whose family's $3.5 million donation jump-started a fundraising drive for the facility.

With outside walls of pre-cast stone, inside walls paneled in dark wood, and furnished with plush leather chairs and sofas, the Smith Center feels more like a top-dollar law firm than a hangout for jocks. Its 31,000 square feet of space includes a 230-seat study hall, 20 tutoring rooms, 60 computer stations, a student lounge, an awards banquet hall, a writing lab and a high-tech classroom seating 55.

(Photo By Robin Nelson, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
"Athletes have a full day," says Vince Dooley, University of Georgia Athletic Director. "There are demands on them that other people don't understand."   

The hardware turns your head, but it's the software that counts: an annual budget of $800,000, ten full-time staffers headed by an associate athletic director and including three counselors for the football team, and more than 80 tutors comprised mainly of graduate students and volunteers from the community. "The tutors are available to all athletes, not just the struggling ones," said Rhonda Kilpatrick, director of football academic counseling. Even high achievers make use of tutors, she added.

This kind of commitment, while upscale, is not unusual. The University of Michigan is spending $15 million on a new academic support facility-a sum that former Michigan president James J. Duderstadt calls "ludicrous." Texas A&M is spending $8 million on a similar facility and doubling from six to 12 the number of part-time counselors. Oregon State is increasing its full-time academic support staff from four to five, and the University of Oregon has increased its staff by two.

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, says such expenditures are warranted "because it's symbolically important to be doing those things. It sends a message to the student athletes...that this is a priority; they're not just building football facilities. They're building these centers to help you become intelligent students-not just student-athletes."

Here at Georgia, according to Associate Athletic Director Glada Horvat, the substance quickly overtakes the symbolism. The process of mentoring athletes begins on their first official recruiting visit to Athens, where they meet with counselors and a university professor even before they sign a letter of intent.

"Once we sign them," said Horvat, "I take over with the red tape and bureaucracy associated with a major university. We support them with administrative help through orientation. I talk with parents for months before they actually come, so we can establish rapport." At orientation, said Horvat, students are turned over to academic counselors and "go through everything other students go through-they just have background support."

Like all students, athletes who are least qualified academically (admitted with less than a 430 verbal SAT score or less than a 400 math SAT score) must take placement tests in reading, English or math, and if they don't score high enough, must take remedial courses in the subject areas where they do not place. They have three chances over three semesters to make at least a C in the course and then make an acceptable score on the placement test. If they fail three times, state education policy requires that they be dismissed for three years. The remediation courses count toward full-time student status, but not toward degree credit, a factor that seems likely to become critical as the NCAA establishes tougher rules for athletes-requiring that they make steady progress toward a degree or face unspecified sanctions.

UGA doesn't provide a breakdown on how many athletes require remediation, but horticulture professor Gary Couvillon, who recently stepped down after ten years as faculty athletic representative, offered an example. In the 2002-03 academic year, 352 incoming UGA students required remediation, of whom 51, or about 15 percent, were athletes. "The fact that ten percent of all students accepted here had to be remediated mostly says something about our high schools," observed Couvillon.

The academic support unit, meanwhile, is constantly monitoring the progress of the athletes. Incoming football freshmen, for example, are assigned to a counselor and placed in a mentoring program.

"We're informed on their academic background," said Kilpatrick. "We know who might need more structure. In the first semester they're in a structured study hall and provided a tutor. Depending on how they perform, they might get more flexibility after the first semester."

But they are never far from the watchful eye of the academic support staff. "We are constantly re-evaluating, especially with freshmen with weaker academic backgrounds," said Kilpatrick. "We may need to increase tutoring from one to three times a week after seeing the first test scores." Early last November, for example, with about five weeks left in the first semester, Kilpatrick said she was placing some football players into "a very structured, intensive situation, to try to save some things late."

The constant monitoring involves both grades and class attendance. Class checkers provide attendance records to the counselors and they in turn provide to the football coaching staff a weekly spreadsheet on student-athletes who have missed class.

The counselors also meet with the coaching staff bi-weekly, and sometimes weekly, to go over such issues as the athletes' study hall schedules. And they meet with academic advisors regularly to talk about what they are recommending to their advisees about future course loads, urging them, for example, to list several alternatives to give the time-pressured athletes the most flexibility. "They're very good about that," said Kilpatrick. "We have a good relationship."

UGA officials insist that athletes get no special breaks. "All athletes are mainstreamed into the general student body," said Couvillon. "There are no majors for athletes here, like some schools have. They've got to pick a major that currently exists, and they've got to show progress toward a degree or they're not going to remain eligible."

   (Photo By Robin Nelson, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
Gary Couvillon, former faculty athletic representative, says there are no "Mickey Mouse" majors for University of Georgia athletes.

While the athletic department does not provide a breakdown of majors chosen by athletes, a compilation of majors listed in the Bulldogs media guide indicates which are most popular among its football players. Of those who had declared a major last year, the leading choice was sports studies, followed by business or pre-business, consumer economics, education and child and family development.

With all the attention being lavished on athletes, critics of the system argue that graduation rates for athletes should be higher than they are-higher, in fact, than for the rest of the student body. It is a charge that evokes strong emotions on both sides of the academic-athletic divide.

Murrary Sperber, an Indiana University professor who has written and lectured widely on the disproportionate influence of athletics in college life, sums up the argument:

"It's like comparing apples to alligators. The main reason most students don't graduate is financial-it's not academic. Only a tiny percentage of students actually flunk out-it's harder to flunk out than stay in. But the cost of college keeps going up and up. Many students leave because they just can't afford it. Whereas, I never met an athlete who couldn't pay his tuition bill, or dorm bill, because it's paid for them as part of their athletic scholarship. Tutoring tends to be expensive for average students, whereas athletes have the best tutors on campus. They have wall-to-wall tutoring. So you can't compare reasons why athletes leave school with why regular students leave school..., because athletes don't have to work all night delivering pizzas the way a lot of my students do."

Sperber bears no animus against athletes: "One of the things they (athletes) have learned is discipline," he said. "Over the years, I haven't met many dumb jocks. The athletes I've had after their eligibility is over have often been excellent students. They're often much better than the sort of frat-rat, beer-drinking students. In that sense, I never blame the athletes. They're caught up in a system that's much bigger than them, and that the adults have worked out.

"To try to pretend that the majority of them are getting a meaningful education, as the NCAA pretends, and as the new graduation statistics will pretend, seems to me a disservice to a vast majority of athletes, who are really underachieving academically."

At UGA, officials from Athletic Director Dooley on down reject the notion that athletes are getting an easy ride. "There's an incredible time demand on athletes, pressure demands that could make up for the lack of other demands that students have," said Dooley. "Athletes have a full day; there are demands on them that other people don't quite understand."

Assistant Athletic Director Susan Lahey, who was lead football counselor for 12 years and now counsels UGA's Olympics athletes, says that paying athletes' tuition and room and board still leaves them with expenses that the university does not and can not provide. "To say that student-athletes have no financial problems would be very inaccurate," Lahey said. "Their part-time job-being an athlete-pays them tuition, board and books, but they can't go get a job; they don't have time to make money to buy pizzas and go to the movies and that sort of thing."

(Photo By Robin Nelson, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
An athletic scholarship does not pay for all of a player's expenses, says Susan Lahey, assistant athletic director.

Added Lahey's successor, Rhonda Kilpatrick: "One thing I feel very sympathetic toward them for, is when I give them their schedule. I say, 'this is tough.' It's seventeen weeks of doing this. And it's not like you have one bad week, where it's a tough week for time management-this is every day. And then on Saturday they're [playing] and on Sunday they're recovering and rehabbing. We're talking about every day; it could be from 6 am to 10 pm that they have a commitment with no more than an hour and a half window, and it is an exhausting life for these young men, and it's not one tough week. This is it for the long haul."

Couvillon, the former faculty athletics representative, offered a further defense of athletes: "They're held to a higher standard than regular students because they've got to show continuing progress. They've got to decide on a major and show progress on that major by the time they're juniors. Other students don't have to do that. They have to maintain certain other standards in order to maintain their eligibility."

Eligibility is just one of several issues now in flux as the NCAA moves to reform the rules in ways that seem somewhat contradictory.

For example, graduation rates themselves could rise dramatically over the next few years because the way in which they are calculated is changing. Since the U.S. Department of Education began requiring schools to publish their athletes' graduation rates in 1990, coaches and athletic directors have complained that they were penalized because student-athletes who transferred to another school or turned pro were counted against a school's graduation rate.

That way of calculating "really doesn't give a true picture, unless you go behind the scenes and look at it," said Oregon State University Athletic Director Bob De Carolis. He cited 2002 as an example: "Our basketball graduation rate was zero percent. That was a byproduct of having six recruits who came in that year (six years earlier), and I believe five of them transferred-in good standing-to other schools, and all of them graduated. And the other one went pro, but we hit the black mark at zero because of the way it's calculated.

The new NCAA rule says that athletes who leave a school early in good academic standing will not count against the graduation rate of that athlete's class. Students who transfer in from other schools can also be counted in the graduation rate.

Meanwhile, the NCAA has loosened requirements that scholarship athletes must meet in order to play as freshmen, and at the same time tightened requirements for academic progress in order for athletes to remain eligible. It's a sort of carrot-and-stick approach.

For all intents and purposes, the NCAA is scrapping the SAT by allowing freshmen to play with a minimum SAT score of 400 if they have a high enough grade point average from high school in core subjects. The move is seen as a way to avoid lawsuits claiming that standardized tests discriminate against minorities.

The looser admission requirement-the "carrot"-worries athletic leaders like Georgia's Dooley, who for two decades has worked to strengthen academic demands on student-athletes.

"I disagree with it," Dooley said, "because it's opened the door too wide in the front, but narrowed the door in the back. If you take off that SAT score, it just sends a message out there that it's not important."

Because high school grading standards are notoriously uneven, Dooley and others are concerned that, in the absence of a meaningful standardized test like the SAT, universities will admit athletes who are not prepared for college-level work, and that keeping them eligible to play will put an additional burden on academic support staffs. Some worry that it will prompt colleges to offer easier majors for athletes or to inflate their grades to keep them eligible.

The "stick" in the new scenario is that scholarship athletes must make faster progress toward their degree in order to retain their eligibility. Under the new "40-60-80 rule," they will have to complete 40 percent of their course credits by the end of their second year, 60 percent by the end of the third year and 80 percent by the end of the fourth year. This replaces the old formula of 25-50-75. They also will have to make faster progress toward achieving the 2.0 grade point average required for graduation. And the amount of credit that remedial courses are given toward eligibility has also been cut, meaning that first-year students might have a harder time meeting the 40 percent requirement the next year.

That is a big jump in requirements, especially for second-year athletes. "The goal is fair, and if they get to that fourth year, the odds are good," said UGA's Kilpatrick. "But that 40 percent requirement (after two years) doesn't give them a lot of leeway."

This gets to the heart of the matter, in the view of those on the academic side who say that, despite all the focus on graduation rates, many major sports programs are more concerned with retaining athletes than graduating them.

Many college sports leaders insist, not surprisingly, that athletes will meet whatever challenge is thrown at them. But Duderstadt, the former University of Michigan president who laid out a scathing indictment of college athletics in his recent book, Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University, makes a different argument:

   (Photo By Robin Nelson, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
Special help for University of Georgia athletes begins on the first campus recruiting visit, says Associate Athletic Director Glada Horvat.

"You're bringing in kids with very weak (academic) background, you give them precious little time to study anyway, and when they do have the time they're battered and bruised and worn out. And what happens is these kids move into their classes in the first few weeks and suddenly realize they don't have a snowball's chance in hell of competing academically. So their academic aspirations go out the window and survival takes over, and at that point they come back into the athletic fold. And, quite frankly, in most of these programs, the objective is not graduation, it's keeping them eligible so they can compete."

In the end, then, the pressure to win in a commercial-entertainment world powered by BCS football and basketball's "March Madness" is apt to overshadow concerns about how many athletes graduate.

Demetrius Marlowe, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics and an assistant to the vice president for student affairs at Michigan State, pinpoints the problem: "In big-time athletics right now-I hope people aren't being dishonest or trying to run away from it-it's about revenue generation. Yeah, it's about student-athletes and giving them opportunities, but in order to give them opportunities in this economic time, you have to create revenue."

At UGA, where the football team generates 85 percent of all athletic department revenue, and where 27 more sky suites are on the drawing board at Sanford Stadium, Couvillon put the tension between athletics and graduation rates into a down-home perspective. Shortly after he took over the job of faculty athletic representative a decade ago, he recalled, he had the occasion to attend a Kiwanis Club luncheon in the town of Griffin, Georgia. He was seated at a table with four other men when the host announced that UGA football coach Ray Goff would be speaking the next day at a Kiwanis Club in a nearby town, and that everyone was invited. Goff, Couvillon explained, was not having a good year on the gridiron.

"One of the guys leaned over to me and said, 'that's the last time that blankety-blank is going to speak anywhere.' And I said, 'What are you talking about? Do you realize that he graduated 70 percent of his athletes last year?'

"And he said, 'We don't want to hear that stuff. Do you think that University of Georgia sticker I've got on the back of my truck is for the bi-o-chem-is-try department?'"

Don Campbell is a freelance writer and a lecturer in journalism at Emory University.

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