Academic advisers: the make sure athletes are students, too

After a particularly inept first half, the disgruntled coach decides to take a remedial, back-to-basics approach during his locker room diatribe.m "Let's start at the beginning," he says, raising an inflated pigskin over his head. "This is a football."m

"Not so fast, coach," comes a voice from the back of the room.m

Whether true or not, this anecdote dusts off the old stereotype of the athlete as all brawn. Sadly, scandals have recently served to revive it in several instances, where athletes were found to be receiving credit for courses they never attended or awarded scholarships on the basis of "doctored" grade transcripts.

These developments have made academic integrity the searing issue in collefe athletics today.

Behind the scenes, many schools already have academic advisers.

These individuals are generally invisible to the public, but they play an important role in making sure football players (and other athletes) are eligible and make progress toward a degree.

Several years ago Indiana coach Lee Corso made news when he hired a female assistant, Elizabeth (Buzz) Kurpius, as part of his football staff. In fact, "Coach Kurpius" seldom got out of the office. Her job was to keep tabs on the players as students, not athletes. As an outgrowth of that assignment, she now heads up the overall athletic, department's academic counseling program.

What originally sparked many schools to hire on academic counselors was a survey conducted by Harry Edwards, a noted black sociologist. The study showed that only about 30 percent of black college athletes actually receive a degree, while the graduation rate for athletes as a whole is in the vicinity of 80 percent. Something obviously had to be done to protect athletes, whatever their color, from exploitation.

Exploitation, in this case, consists of giving players scholarships as payment for their football services, but essentially dumping them into the job market no better educated than before.

Many athletes, of course, see college football simply as a stepping stone to the pros. Not surprisingly, this group reportedly graduates at a much lower rate than teammates with no professional aspirations.

"What some young men forget," says Frank Downing, Penn State's academic adviser, "is that even if they do play pro ball they will still have to spend 30 years or so making a living at something else. And what if they're injured and have to retire early?"

The important decisions, most academic advisers will tell you, come in weeding out athletes who don't belong before they arrive on campus.

Failure to do so leads to obvious problems in keeping players eligible who are not really college material. Perhaps no school knows this better than Southern California, which, along with four other PAC-10 conference members, has gotten into trouble because of academic indiscretions. James H. Zumberge, the university's president, has issued a statement indicating that 330 athletes who did not meet the college's minimum requirements were admitted during the past decade.

Generally, the minimum requirement at any NCAA-member institution is a 2.0 grade average, with higher marks demanded by some schools. Many colleges look at scores on standardized tests as well, since these "cut" through the differences in high school grading procedures.

To remain competitive at the big-time level, most coaches feel compelled to recruit the passable student as heavily as the exceptional one. The player on the lower rung academically, though, often requires more attention, particularly as a freshman.

Notre Dame, for example, puts its incoming players though a 10-lecture series on study skills, while at Penn State freshmen are offered a two-day orientation in math and English.

Programs of this nature are designed to get new students off to a good start, but generally speaking, academic advisers strive to make athletes as academically independent as possible.

"I don't like the word 'babysit,' because that's not what we do," says Notre Dame adviser Mike DeCicco. "We monitor the progress of our players, especially in the first year when they have study halls, but they do the work."

Notre Dame has had an excellent record of graduating its players, even the ones like quarterback Terry Hanratty who made no bones about his chief goal being a football career, not a diploma. "What we've tried to do." DeCicco explains, "is get our kids to take as much pride in their academic accomplishments as their athletic ones. We push everybody, not just the boy who's doing D and F work. If we have a player with excellent academic credentials, we'll encourage him to apply for postgraduate scholarships."

Notions that mot schools attempt to put to rest are that tutors shephered football players through college and that academic advisers funnel them into easy, "Mickey Mouse" classes.

At Penn State, Downing says, tutors are provided only after a player has exhausted practically all other means of getting his school work in order. "We tell them to go to their professor first and discuss the situation," he explains. "From there he can approach a teaching assistant, and if that doesn't work he can go back to the professor and ask if he knows any tutors. If he doesn't, we have a tutoring pool.

"The tutors are not to do anybody's work and they're not to be used in lieu of going to class."

While it's true that academic advisers try to help players find courses they are comfortable with, they remain aware of the need to fulfill degree requirements, which explains their aversion to loading up on courses that lead nowhere.

Why, one might ask, do football players merit special academic attention?

Principally, it seems, because of the tremendous demands -- as much as six hours a day during the week and more on weekends -- placed on their time. And these demands don't end after the last game either. Off-season conditioning programs and spring practice make football a year-round commitment.

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