The other March Madness

In the shadow of the NCAA tournament, players' homework habits, exams, and even e-mail use are scrutinized by academic advisers.

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It's 8:50 a.m., and Boston College basketball player Uka Agbai is already working his contacts. As he clears away his barely touched eggs and bacon, he flags down a team manager.

But Uka's question isn't about practice. Instead, he needs the lowdown on an assignment from his fellow media-ethics classmate. A take-home test is due today, but Uka has an extension until tomorrow.

This is a glimpse of the other March Madness, the one that TV cameras don't film. The one where Division I players conduct study halls in hotel rooms, work Spanish exercises on bumpy buses, and write papers on airplane trays. Where roundballers morph into secretaries, public-relations men, and sweet-talkers, reminding profs when they'll be gone, arranging tests, and securing notes from classmates.

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Even as these potential pros showcase their athletic talent for scouts at the NCAA tournament, they must stay focused on academic performance.

Before they were bumped in the second round, Boston College players got a taste of the "academic March Madness" that goes along with the pressure-cooker games.

Two 9-to-5 jobs

Players lives are ruled by schedules. Laminated itineraries for road trips tell them where to be and when. Before the season starts, players give professors a schedule of all away games. Free time in this business means sleep or study.

On this day - between the regular season and the NCAA tournament - Uka (pronounced YOU-ka) already has the drained look of a factory worker who just got off a double shift.

"It's like having a 9-to-5 job while having another 9-to-5 job at the same exact time," the sophomore explains.

Even with the "four-and-twenty-hour rule" imposed by the NCAA in 1991, where athletes' participation in their sports is limited to a maximum of four hours per day and 20 hours per week, athletes still spend countless hours "voluntarily" practicing. In fact, an NCAA Division I athlete spends an average of 730 hours per year on his or her sport, says Richard Sheehan, author of "Keeping Score: the Economics of Big-Time Sports," and that's a conservative estimate.

Uka's strategy for the tournament was to whittle away at his mountain of homework. "I do my homework really late at night because I feel that is the only free time that I have," he says.

Uka's day is so piled with commitments he sometimes sprints to practice - and still doesn't make it on time.

"You have to know short cuts to get to practice and not be late," he says, stepping around a dish rack as he slips through the employee entrance of the cafeteria kitchen.

The communication major's 15 credits of classes eat into his already packed schedule of practice, weight lifting, and film sessions to study other teams. He does a few Spanish exercises here, works on a speech about racial profiling there.

Other players don't want to be bothered, and put homework off until after the tournament. That method meant bench time for two UCLA players. They were removed from the starting lineup for their second-round game because they showed up for only 45 minutes of a two-hour study session - just a week before finals.

But lest players' focus stray too far from school, academic advisers and "instructional assistants" travel with them.

One such adviser is Dard Miller, the Boston College team's maven of memory muscle. Dr. Miller, a learning specialist, led a mandatory study hall for four players during BC's run. Two players, a cheerleader, and a team manager also had tests proctored by her when they returned from the tournament (some professors even want tests given at a specific time).

Miller also supervises players' online reading habits, since the NCAA has a rule that e-mail and Internet use during the tournament must be academically related. But advisers aren't hand holders, says Miller. They teach critical-reading skills, brainstorming, and how to rewrite papers.

During the season, some students must meet with Miller or other academic advisers three times a week. More than half the team is not required to check in, including Uka, who maintains about a 3.0 grade-point average. Many players stop by to see her voluntarily, though.

At most Division I schools, academic advisers e-mail the players' professors a few times a semester, asking for attendance records and grades on tests and papers. This feedback helps them gauge the amount of help players need.

Tracking starts as soon as they arrive on campus. Advisers oversee such minutiae as whether a player needs another source in his bibliography. And if students dip below the minimum GPA (2.5 to 1.67 at Boston College, depending on their major), the deans, not the advisers, contact them.

"Before they even get in trouble with the NCAA, they are in trouble with the deans," Miller says. This scrutiny, which is applied to all students, not just athletes, forces players to take homework on the road.

The fight to stay focused

Trying to study on the road is a battle with heavy eyelids and Mr. Sandman.

"As a player, I remember one of the biggest hurdles with studying was not so much time, but being tired," says Jay Bilas, who played on the Duke University Final Four team in 1986. "The couch looked a lot better than the test."

Uka remembers working on a history paper on the bus. "Then they put on 'Gladiator'...," he says, trailing off.

Miller, who has studied athletes' learning styles, tells them: "Say to yourself: 'What do I want to get out of this? I'm going to read for critical ideas....' If you can't focus, do a mindless task like the bibliography."

Players should aim for short, focused study stints during their "peak performance" time, Miller says, adding some guys are early birds, others are night owls.

While their study may be focused, professors say athletes can't replicate discussion and "learning moments" that take place in class. Uka, for instance, missed a week and a half of public speaking during the season. Still, other experts say the experience of March Madness outweighs the loss of a missed class.

"You're telling me that missing two weeks of school is more important than going to the Final Four and having that experience?" asks Joel Kirsch, president of the American Sports Institute. "You gotta be kidding."

Professors are well intentioned, continues Dr. Kirsch, "it's just that they don't know what these athletes are experiencing. If they had that experience, they'd be willing to miss their own classes as well."

Mr. Bilas puts it this way: "They're not going to play your B-minus on ESPN Classic for the rest of your life," adding that basketball teaches lifelong lessons - like concentration and focus.

"Some faculty make allowances," says Paul Spagnoli, a history professor and the faculty athletic representative at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "Others take a harder line."

The "allowances" can be carried too far. Advocates for reform of college sports point to several high-profile incidents - most recently at the University of California, Berkeley, where an ethnic-studies professor will be suspended in the fall semester for giving credit to two football players for coursework they did not do.

Professors who take a harder stance often lock horns with athletes, Miller says. "If you have a teammate that blows off class and has a cavalier attitude," she says, other players may face resentment.

Uka agrees. "Oh, you think you're a superstar?" he says, imitating some professors. "I get irritated by that. You check all the dates I've missed class," he tells them, "then all my games. They match up."

Defying stereotypes

The big-man-on-campus stereotype isn't the only thing that bothers Miller. She cringes at the misperception that players are cut off from the rest of campus.

"They are not in any way a homogeneous group," she says.

Uka's dorm room breaks all college-sports stereotypes. He doesn't live with other basketball players, doesn't eat with them, and he gets no special treatment. In fact, last year he lost out on the dorm-room lottery and was paired with someone he didn't know.

His screen saver is a Sesame Street scene. His size 17 black slippers sit on the floor next to the bed where he folds his 6 ft., 8 in. frame into the fetal position in order to fit. He likes to listen to Miles Davis when he's studying, like he's doing now, preparing for a presentation on advertising ethics. He's only been to two of his group's meetings because of team travel.

Many would say Uka is an anomaly. His nice-guy vibe prompts random students to strike up conversations with him. He makes it a point to stop and chat.

If he didn't play basketball, he says, "I'd probably have an A average. I'd have so much more time to do the work."

He also thinks he's missing out on the social scene at college. "I talk to regular students and they say, 'I went to this party' or 'I went to this function.' I'll never be able to do this."

This son of Nigerian immigrants is willing to make the sacrifice in the hopes that he'll be able to play in the NBA after college. But the NCAA tournament, he says, isn't everything, and if basketball doesn't pan out, he'd like to be a sports writer. "I see other things to be more important than just basketball ... like life."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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