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'You Pass, You Play'
Under new NCAA rules, coaches look for ways to make sure players do well in the classroom
By Welch Suggs
Michael Perry strode into his team's last practice of the season a little bit late. His Georgia State University basketball players were shooting around and halfheartedly starting drills the day before the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament began this month.
It had been a long season for the Panthers, who completed the regular season with 14 wins and 14 losses. Four players were about to conclude their college careers -- the seniors Marcus Brown, Sylvester Morgan, Everett Morris, and Kevin Thomas -- and Mr. Perry, the team's head coach, was a little bit worried.
Everyone on the team needs to pass his courses for the semester to ensure that the Panthers are not punished for failing to meet the National Collegiate Athletic Association's new academic standards. Both the carrot and the stick are obvious for underclassmen, Mr. Perry says: You pass, you play. You don't, you sit.
"We have control over playing time, and I use it in terms of showing where your priorities should be," the coach says.
Seniors, on the other hand, finish playing when the season ends, in March. Coaches have no more carrots, and many players simply leave college after the final game of the year, no matter how little they still have to do to earn their degrees.
With the NCAA poised next year to begin stripping the scholarships that teams can award when they have too many players flunking out, the onus is on coaches and academic advisers to make sure that athletes are passing their courses and on track to get their degrees. Mr. Perry says he accepts that.
"Coaches are responsible for having those discussions about academics, life skills, and the value of an education," he says. "You have to be like a parent in that regard."
Ideally, Mr. Perry says, Georgia State's seniors will have internalized enough of those discussions to be motivated to stay long enough to finish their degrees. Two of the four players will receive degrees in May, he says, and all four are in good academic standing at the moment.
The NCAA's academic plan has been the main topic of conversation in college sports for weeks, ever since the association announced grades for every team in Division I (The Chronicle, March 11). Athletes are required to pass 20 percent of the courses they need for a degree each year, and they must surpass minimum numbers of credit hours each semester or quarter during the regular academic year. Colleges may have additional requirements, such as minimum grade-point averages.
Each team receives a score each term on the basis of two factors: the number of athletes who remain enrolled and the number who remain academically eligible for sports. The score, known formally as the Academic Progress Rate, is on a scale of 1 to 1,000. The NCAA predicts that a team that maintains a score of 925 over a long period of time will graduate 50 percent of its athletes. Last month the association released scores for teams based on the 2003-4 academic year.
In December or January, the NCAA will release team scores based on data from 2003-4 and 2004-5. Teams scoring below 925 that have athletes who are academically ineligible and leave college will not be allowed to reallocate those players' scholarships to other athletes for one year.
Numerous waivers and exceptions will be in place, however. The NCAA will take a margin of error, or "upper confidence boundary," into account and will let teams off the hook if they are fairly close to the 925 score. The amount of leeway they will get is based on their squad size. In effect, men's basketball teams could score as low as 872 and football teams as low as 905 without being in the NCAA's danger zone, though both numbers will rise after the association accumulates more data on each team.
Teams from colleges that serve "economically distressed segments of the population" will also get a break, according to Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the NCAA committee that devised the plan. The NCAA has not decided how to define such institutions, but probably will use the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and other factors as proxies, he said.
In effect, urban institutions and historically black colleges and universities will have a lower standard to meet. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which consist entirely of historically black institutions, had the lowest overall scores of any Division I league.
Georgia State's basketball team had an Academic Progress Rate of 870, two points below the lowest cutoff, so it is definitely in the danger zone unless all of its players stay enrolled and pass their courses. The university, a commuter institution in downtown Atlanta with its gymnasium on the third floor of the physical-education building, might qualify for the urban-institution exemption, depending on how that is defined. And Mr. Perry, the basketball coach, is happy to list all the disadvantages under which he operates.
The team cannot always afford to pay for its players to attend summer school, he says, nor will it pay for students to stick around and finish their degrees after they exhaust their eligibility. The university's academic requirements are particularly difficult for athletes who transfer from junior colleges to meet, he says. And the occasional Panther with a chance to play professional ball will head out to Brazil or to the National Basketball Association draft camps with nary a thought of finishing college.
Across the country, academic advisers say they are cautiously optimistic about the new standards.
"If there are all these codicils and asterisks, especially for men's basketball, for student-athletes who are unhappy with their playing time and leave in good academic standing, then the sport isn't being penalized for that" unfairly, says Sandra K. Meyer, assistant director for academic services in the athletics department at Pennsylvania State University at University Park.
The Penn State men's basketball team scored a 913, not because players were failing their courses but because four players left after the institution fired its head coach, Jerry Dunn, says Ms. Meyer, incoming president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes.
At a Disadvantage
Penn State and other institutions with academic requirements beyond the NCAA's minimums are at a competitive disadvantage, she points out. The Academic Progress Rate is calculated on the basis of each institution's standards, so an athlete who would be raising the grade for many colleges would not do so for Penn State.
"If the NCAA were to base the APR on the NCAA's academic standards, you might see that schools that have higher standards, like members of the Big Ten, would maybe have higher scores," Ms. Meyer says. Colleges that have less rigorous curricula will have a much easier time than others, she adds.
She and other academic advisers fear that the new standards will put even more pressure on them to keep athletes eligible, even if that means keeping athletes in easy courses.
"The onus ought to be on the coach to recruit athletes who can make it at his or her school," Ms. Meyer says. "In reality, much of the onus is going to fall on the academic counselor. This was a big topic at our national meeting: What kind of support are you going to be getting from the institution if the coach goes ahead and recruits academically at-risk student-athletes?"
Mr. Perry, the Georgia State coach, says he is comfortable accepting the responsibility for his players' academic progress. Yet he acknowledges that he will be fired if he does not win basketball games -- and the way to win basketball games is by recruiting talented athletes. The pool of talented athletes with the aptitude, preparation, and motivation to succeed academically is smaller than the pool of talented athletes without those qualities.
He looks down the court at one of the seniors, Marcus Brown, a spindly 6-foot-9 power forward.
Mr. Brown has a 3.0 grade-point average, Mr. Perry says, and he has learned the importance of academics. If he had a whole team of Marcus Browns, the coach says, he'd be happy.
But there are 326 other teams competing for the small number of Marcus Browns -- players who can average 15 points a game along with their 3.0's. So Mr. Perry faces the eternal challenge of college sports: finding good players who can do well and want to do well, and motivating them to succeed both on the court and in the classroom.
Starting next year, much more will be riding on his results and those of other coaches.
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