Help or hand-holding?

Florida freshman standout basketball player Anthony Roberson studies for a Wildlife Issues class final with University Athletic Association tutor DeeDee Warner, in a computer lab of the Office of Student Life Academic Center. Wildlife issues is one of a handful of courses designated each semester that the UAA will hire tutors to attend, take notes and discuss with enrolled students athletes in weekly sessions. Other classes last semester included music listening lab, a class about insects for non-science majors and an introductory sociology class.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 1:12 a.m.

In the weeks leading up to the fall semester's finals, University of Florida freshman Anthony Roberson wasn't spending a lot of time in class.

In a stretch of 20 days, the standout freshman guard played in eight basketball games - several of which were on the road - and spent dozens of hours in practice in preparation for them.

On Dec. 14, while many UF students were busy cramming for the following week's final exams, the man his teammates call "Peep" was scoring 20 points - including four three-pointers - to help UF defeat the defending national champion Maryland Terrapins 69-64 in College Park.

By any stretch of the imagination, the demands placed on student-athletes competing at the highest levels of intercollegiate sports can be a distraction from their schoolwork.

"For regular students, it's go to class and party," said Roberson, who was heavily recruited out of Saginaw, Mich. "For us, it's school plus basketball.

"It's like a job," he said. "We spend 20 hours a week practicing and working out. That would be a challenge for anybody."

Compounding that challenge is the reality that many student-athletes at UF are far less prepared for college than their student-only counterparts.

Roberson, for instance, said he scored either a 17 or 18 - out of 36 - on the ACT. The average ACT score for all entering freshmen at UF was 26.3 in the 2002-2003 school year.

Also, a much higher percentage of student-athletes are learning disabled than are non-athletes.

Just over 15 percent of UF's student-athlete population is classified as learning disabled, according to John Denny, director of UF's Disability Resources Office.

That's 70 out of UF's 460 men and women student-athletes.

Non-athletes with learning disabilities, who get the same accommodations, make up 0.006 percent of the regular UF population - 295 out of 46,055 non-athletes.

A nationwide survey by the American Council on Education found that 2.4 percent of all college freshmen report having a learning disability.

Depending on what the diagnosis is, having a learning disability entitles students to special accommodations, such as:

Having someone take notes for them.

Having their reading material recorded books-on-tape-style through a program originally set up for blind students.

Getting extra time on tests. Receiving preprinted copies of the professor's overheads and PowerPoint presentations.

But it's not just the learning disabled student-athletes who get special attention - as much as UF can provide within the NCAA regulations - and a level of support critics denounce as more hand-holding than help.

Like many successful college sports programs, UF's University Athletic Association has an extensive support system in place for the young men and women who make the Gators go. This year, UAA will spend $1.93 million to academically support its student-athletes - roughly $4,200 for each of the 460 student-athletes served by the Office of Student Life.

That's not chump change. But to put the figure in some perspective, those student-athletes are largely the reason why the University Athletic Association took in $34 million in ticket sales, television revenue, donations and other income associated with sports programs.

Florida's UAA is among the small fraction of collegiate sports programs - perhaps 20 or 30 out of 324 Division I schools - that actually take in more money than they spend.

Some $25.2 million of the profits have been shared with the university's academic enterprise since 1990, according to the University Athletic Association.

The UAA contribution to UF's academic enterprise does not include the cost of the academic support program for student-athletes, which has brought UF national recognition.

A 1999 national survey by The Sporting News put UF in the elite company of Stanford, North Carolina, Penn State and Notre Dame in the areas of success, graduation rates, support and Title IX compliance, among others.

Student-athletes get academic assistance the average student would envy if they knew about it, including:

Free tutoring for any subject.

One-on-one mentoring and monitoring for freshmen and sophomores whose academic credentials put them at risk of failure.

Quick and easy access to the same adviser throughout their time at UF.

The use of state-of-the-art physical facilities, including computer labs and private study spaces. "Regular" students can get free group tutoring from the Office of Instructional Resources, and academic advisers are available to all - by appointment.

Personalized services

Vice President for Student Services Jim Scott said with 460 student-athletes to focus on, the Office of Student Life can treat them more as individuals.

"I think the difference is, while the services and programs are similar, the athletic association has the opportunity of providing more personalized services to the student-athletes," Scott said.

"For instance, they have a much lower ratio of student-athletes to advisers as compared with services we can provide for some 47,000 students."

For basketball players especially, competition can really cut into class time. During the season, two games a week are played - usually one on Tuesday or Wednesday, the other on Saturday.

Because players often miss classes for the weekday games, an academic adviser travels with the team, making sure that players are meeting all deadlines for classwork and that they get their assignments done. The adviser also acts as a liaison between athletes and their teachers when games force the players to miss classes.

Basketball players like Roberson miss far more class than football players, whose games are once a week, on Saturdays.

"With the extra help they give you, you learn how to manage school and basketball," said Roberson, whose 3-point buzzer-beater against Georgia on Saturday is the talk of the town.

"The tutors are real helpful when the season gets going," he said. "I'm glad to get all the help I can get."

20-hour rule in its SEC championship season that just ended, UF's volleyball team played on 38 days - many of them weekdays.

"A lot of us try to have as much work as we can done before we travel," said Nicole McCray, a senior volleyball player who has already earned her bachelor's degree in commercial recreation.

The NCAA's "20-hour rule" - which limits the amount of time a student-athlete can devote to practice - does not include travel time, including the flight or traffic delays that can unexpectedly add hours to an athlete's schedule.

"Some people can do homework the day of a game," said McCray, the first-team All-SEC middle blocker who ends her career ranked second in blocks with 529. "I can't. I can't really concentrate that well on a game day."

Critics charge that the 20-hour rule is all but meaningless because many student-athletes put in a lot of additional time in voluntary practices and conditioning.

UF Associate Athletic Director for NCAA Compliance Jamie McCloskey said that UF does nothing to discourage voluntary practice.

"Hopefully, all of these kids come here with the hope they're all going to be playing on Sundays," said McCloskey, referring to the day of the week most NFL games are played.

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the football practice field and the basketball practice facility are all open for student-athletes who want to practice their passing routes or their free throws, McCloskey said.

"I think it happens quite a bit," he said. "I think they're willing to make whatever commitment they need to make to put themselves in a position to go to the next level.

"All we do is make sure our coaches are not present, and also that it's not like they're captains' practices, where our coaches are saying, 'I can't be there, so you team captains be responsible for making sure everyone shows up.'

"The importance of that is communicated to our coaches each year."

If student-athletes are spending too much time with the ball and not enough with their books, UF's academic monitoring will pick up on it, he said.

The educational experience is definitely different for student-athletes, but the old cliché about athletes taking "Basket Weaving 101" doesn't hold at UF, according to Matt Bonner, senior basketball forward who is the first UF basketball player - and only the third UF student-athlete - to be named a first team National Academic All-American of the Year by CoSIDA, the College Sports Information Directors of America.

"The stereotypes bother me," Bonner said. "People recognize me as an athlete . . . and they think maybe I get by with C's because I'm an athlete.

"They think we all take easier classes and that you get 'athletes' notes that regular students don't get."

In fact, there is a tailored curriculum for UF student-athletes who are considered at risk of academic failure.

Each semester, the Office of Academic Technology selects six to eight general-education classes for which it will hire graduate-student tutors for the student-athletes.

The tutors attend every class alongside the student-athletes, take notes that are available to student-athletes when they miss class, and provide mandatory weekly "supplemental instruction" and test-prep sessions.

"We are extremely cautious to make sure that the tutors are there to help the students, but they are not there to do the students' work," said Winnie Cooke, assistant director of the Office of Academic Technology.

"I'm very careful when I hire the teaching assistants to look for people who are not overly enamored with athletics."

The fall semester's offerings included Math for Liberal Arts Majors, Wildlife Issues, Writing for Agriculture and Natural Resources, a music listening lab, introductory sociology, and entomology for non-science majors,.

Athletes vs. 'regulars'

Dalila Eshe, a 6-foot-3 freshman forward on the women's basketball team, took the sociology class. She said she chose UF - the No. 2 rated women's athletic school in the country, according to Eshe - over top-rated Stanford in part because of UF's academic support system.

Eshe had a 3.3 GPA at Florida High School in Tallahassee, and scored a 20 on her ACT - putting her in the upper academic echelon of Division I players. With dreams of earning a doctorate Ph.D. in psychology, Eshe said she was drawn to UF's academic structure.

"We're monitored very well," said Eshe, noting that her professors send weekly attendance and grade reports to her academic adviser.

"It's very supportive," she said. "We know coming in that they're going to give you all the help you need. All you have to do is ask, and half the time you don't have to ask because they're monitoring your courses so they know how you're doing."

The reason many student-athletes are playing catch-up is that in high school they took easier classes to help them stay eligible to play sports, Cooke said.

"They're at risk because of being underprepared," she said. "Under different circumstances they may have taken college prep courses and may not have needed us."

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a dozen non-athlete UF students sat quietly waiting 20 to 40 minutes to see a student adviser.

As they waited, student-athletes filed past them into the next wing of the Academic Advising building, where many would likely stroll right into an adviser's office.

One of them was junior offensive guard Shannon Snell, whose 6-foot-5, 312-pound frame makes it easy to tell he is an athlete.

"I think they do a good job of keeping us in line," said Snell, who plans to graduate in 2004 with a degree in youth sciences, a program in the College of Agriculture.

"Every school should have a program like this, but they don't," he said. "Without the Office of Student Life, a lot of people would be struggling with their schoolwork, myself included."

One of the "regular" students waiting to see a tutor that day was David Goldsmith, a recent transfer from the University of Georgia. He said he doesn't resent the extra help student-athletes get.

"I think most students appreciate what they do," he said. "I think there's an understanding that we want a great football and basketball team, so we bring in whoever we can and do whatever it takes to get them here.

"It matters to UF that (athletes) stay eligible and whether they graduate," he said, and that's why student-athletes get more access to tutors and advisers.

"They practice hard and play hard," he said. "I'm not going to begrudge them the benefits they get."

But other students see an unfair advantage, including Marco Thomas, a graduate student in music from Ellenwood, Ga., who got special consideration in admissions as an undergraduate because of his musical talent.

"I had music talent, but I still was expected to maintain my GPA," said Thomas, who plays the trombone. "If we (non-athletes) slip to 2.0, nobody is going to be there to help us out.

"College is a whole different ball game," he said. "You need to learn to fend for yourself, and if someone is always holding your hand, it's not going to happen."

Stepping it up

The transition from high school to college is an adjustment for any freshman. But it's especially tough for the least academically qualified of the student-athletes, who are asked to step up their game in every aspect of their busy lives.

Freshman running back DeShawn Wynn was a superstar in his Division III Reading High School in Cincinnati, rushing for more than 2,000 yards in three of his four high school seasons for the Fighting Blue Devils.

But the rigors of practicing, training and performing at a top-rated Division I university surprised him.

"We lift weights four times a week, " said Wynn, who is 5-foot-11 and weighs 220 pounds.

He said he increased the number of times he can bench-press 225 pounds from 8 to 15 last semester.

Wynn was one of 30 or so student-athletes who were required to start their college career early, in the summer, in hopes that the head start will help them keep pace once the fall semester - and the football season - start.

It's hard to put academics first during "two-a-days" - an intensive training time when football players practice in the morning, before some classes, and then again in the afternoon.

"We've got all kinds of football practice, and lifting, and games and traveling," Wynn said. "You're so tired sometimes you don't feel like studying."

But, for many, studying and working with tutors is the only way to stay eligible to play and to progress toward graduation.

Still, some student-athletes resist the help at first.

"When I first came in I thought, 'I don't need a tutor - I can handle this,' " said McCray, the volleyball player. "Then my adviser talked to me, and I let my ego go and ended up doing well in the class."

At UF, "You have to work at failing," McCray said, "because there are just too many resources to help you pass a course."

College 'freedom'

UF's rules are stricter than the NCAA's when it comes to staying eligible for competition and postseason play, Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said.

"When I first became the (athletic director), I was watching a baseball game when one of our pitchers was pitching in the SEC tournament who had flunked out of all three (of his) classes, but was still eligible," Foley said. "I said, 'Something's wrong here.' "

That was in the early 1990s, he said.

"We instituted a six-hour rule that says you have to pass at least six hours to be eligible to compete in postseason play," Foley said. "The SEC just adopted that."

The expectations are a real eye-opener for many - some of whom were coddled in high school because of their athletic talent, said Moise Joseph, a sophomore UF distance runner out of Miami High School.

"A lot of things come out of the closet when you come here, where the rules are a lot stricter," Joseph said. "If you were cheating in high school, if you've always had your girlfriend or your friend taking the tests for you, it's going to be a lot different at UF.

"A lot of them don't survive," he said. "They just fall off."

Like most of the incoming student body, Wynn, the running back, said he was under the impression that he'd have more freedom in college than in high school.

But shortly after he cut one of his first classes, one that met at 7:25 a.m., Wynn said he found himself getting up even earlier - for two weeks of mandatory 6:25 a.m. study hall.

University Athletic Association officials, Wynn said, "take it real serious. I thought you could show up whenever you wanted. But they stress going to class is a big part of learning."

Student-athletes who are considered "at-risk" for academic failure and miss a single class five times are suspended from 10 percent of their sport's season, with additional absences increasing the length of the suspension.

Foley said redshirt freshmen, who don't play, can have their game tickets taken away so their parents can't attend the games, or have their bowl or SEC gifts taken away.

For instance, players got $300 worth of gifts from Outback Bowl organizers, including a ring, a football and a visor.

They also got to pick $300 worth of gifts from a selection offered by UAA, including a warm-up suit, a duffel bag, golf shirts, jackets, sweatshirts and a watch.

"I think you've got to try to make them accountable," Foley said. "We don't have to do that very often, because most of the kids do understand."

Twofold goal

Referring to the way the Office of Student Life is run, Associate Dean of Business Administration Andy McCullough - who sits on UF's Intercollegiate Athletic Committee - said, "Sometimes I think it's too rigid."

The Intercollegiate Athletic Committee was started by then-UF President John Lombardi after Florida was rocked with non-academic sanctions in the late 1980s. It is charged with keeping an eye on the academic progress of student-athletes.

"I've been concerned that they restrict freedoms in ways I wish they wouldn't," McCullough said.

"They line 'em up, sit 'em down and take roll," he said. "But maybe that's what they need when some of them have their minds and hearts set on playing at the professional level."

The goal for all that motivating is twofold, and the student-athletes know it.

"It's both to keep us eligible, and also so we'll be able to graduate," Joseph said. "Coaches mostly want to make sure you're able to compete, and counselors and administrators really want you to graduate."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top