Lack of professional opportunities boosts women's academic rates

Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 12:43 a.m.
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University of Florida basketball player Sophia Witherspoon graduated after four years in 1991 after being admitted to UF under an academic exception to NCAA admissions criteria. She now plays for the LA Sparks in the WNBA.

When University of Florida basketball player Sophia Witherspoon graduated after four years in 1991, her accomplishment was seen as so remarkable that UF created a special annual award named after her for student-athletes who overcome adversity.
Witherspoon was the first woman athlete admitted to UF under an academic exception to NCAA admissions criteria known as "Proposition 48," when she couldn't make the college entrance exam cutoff.
She now plays for the LA Sparks in the Women's National Basketball Association.
"My goal was to graduate in four years, not only to prove to myself, but to prove it to the university that I would not let them down and I would graduate from the University of Florida," she said in a telephone interview from her off-season home in Hollywood, Fla.
But while Witherspoon's story is remarkable in one sense, it fits a distinct pattern in the grade-point averages and graduation rates of student-athletes at UF and across the country.
Graduation rates are almost invariably higher in sports where there is no chance for a professional career or where opportunities are limited or poorly paid.
Most women's sports fall into that category, which is one reason, some say, that female athletes graduate at a significantly higher rate than male athletes - 61 versus 44 percent at UF, according to the 2002 NCAA graduation report, which tracked the 1995-96 recruiting class.
Nationwide, in Division I, 69 percent of female student-athletes entering in 1995-96 graduated versus 54 percent of male student-athletes.
Some of the disparity can be attributed to the fact that women graduate at a higher rate than men overall - 73 versus 67 percent in the UF student body, according to the report.
But UF's Women's Athletic Director Ann Marie Rogers said the lack of pro sports opportunities also plays a role.
"Part of it, I think, is that the women want to get their degree and they don't have the thoughts of going professional the way the men do," Rogers said.
"There aren't those same opportunities out there, and those that are there don't pay the same salaries," she said. "The exceptions for women are tennis and golf."

The difference

A Sun analysis of the average team grade-point averages by sport at UF bears out her theory. Ranking the sports in order of average grade-point averages from last year, clustered near the bottom of the list are the sports where players have the best chance of going on to a pro career.
From lowest grade-point average to highest, the bottom seven sports on the list are football, men's track, men's basketball, baseball, men's golf, women's golf and women's tennis.
A similar analysis is not available for graduation rates, because the NCAA tracks only a handful of sports individually: baseball, basketball, cross country and football for men, and basketball and cross country for women. The other sports are lumped into "men's other" and "women's other."
Of course, many factors play into academic success, including academic preparation for college, the expectations of parents and coaches and each student's focus.
Dalila Eshe, a 6-foot-3 freshman forward on the women's basketball team, said she wants to play in the WNBA, but also plans to pursue graduate school.
Women's Basketball Head Coach Carolyn Peck "holds us to a really high standard," Eshe said. "If the rest of the teams are getting a 2.0 (grade-point average), she wants us to be getting a 3.0.
"She wants our standards as girl basketball players to be way up there in the professor's mind."
In Witherspoon's day, pro opportunities for women basketball players were even rarer than they are now.
"We knew that we were using that opportunity to get our degree and getting a full ride," she said. "The only place at the time to go pro was overseas. What if you got hurt? We wanted first to get that degree."
After graduation, she was able to make a living playing pro basketball in Europe, and later moved back to the United States when the WNBA was formed.
The average starting salary in the WNBA is $35,000 a year, she said. The entire league salary budget is only about $12 million for 2002 - less than half the $25.2 million 2002-2003 season salary of Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"If the women finish school, they can make about as much if they graduate and get a job as they could in the WNBA," Rogers said.
In her time at UF, Witherspoon said while she and her female teammates were hitting the books, her male friends on the football and basketball teams were eyeing the pros.
"The focus more so for the men in general - track and field, football, basketball - is, 'We have somewhere to go,' " Witherspoon said, referring to professional sports. "School was there only because 'I need to stay eligible.'
"A lot of them just did enough to get by; that was the difference between men's and women's sports," she said.
"We were doing our ultimate best and they were just doing what they had to."

Making a living

The same is true today, said Lauren Moscovic, a sophomore setter on the UF volleyball team.
"We're thinking more about how to make a living," Moscovic said. "If something works out, it comes second to a degree because a degree will be there the rest of your life, while pro league is only however many years your body lasts and then you need something to fall back on."
It's not just women's sports, either. Male swimmers, for instance, have nowhere to go professionally.
"Basically with swimming, there isn't much of a future after college, so we're here to go to school," said Mark Jansen, a former scholarship backstroker at UF who is now in medical school there.
The graduation rates in some sports aren't just lower because of players who leave school early for the pros, Witherspoon said.
Many others - even those who have no realistic shot of going - short-shrift their schoolwork in favor of the dream of the pros.
"At the time, even though going to the pros was rare, a lot of (the men's basketball team) thought they would be the one to change the system," Witherspoon said.
"On the football side, even though it was so rare especially in those days, you could not deter them from believing they were going to be the ones."
Carrie Miller can be reached at 338-3103 or millerc@gvillesun. com.

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