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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.

By Lane Hartill Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2001

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.

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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.

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.