Dual Dreams

Student-athletes often ditch degrees if pro opportunities arise

Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 12:45 a.m.
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Emmitt Smith collects his bachelor of science degree in recreation in 1996.

Sun file photo
On the floor of the O'Connell Center at commencement ceremonies in May 1996, one of the University of Florida's most illustrious former dropouts sat in cap and gown signing autographs, his every move documented by ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other national media.
Three months after helping his Dallas Cowboys win the Super Bowl - and six years after he left UF early to join the National Football League - Emmitt Smith was back in Gainesville to fulfill a promise to his parents and himself. He came back to walk across the stage and accept his bachelor of science in recreation from then-UF President John Lombardi.
During the off-season, Smith had come back to attend classes and earn his degree.
"I'm just as thrilled about this accomplishment as any of my other accomplishments," Smith said after the ceremony, during which the O'Connell Center audience gave him a standing ovation as he strode across the stage.
As thrilled as Smith and his family were about his achievement, technically it mattered little to UF's sports programs. In fact, Smith will forever be considered a dropout as far as UF's NCAA graduation rates are concerned because he graduated more than six years after he enrolled.
Six years is the time limit the NCAA gives a school to graduate an athlete.
Across the country and on average, student-athletes graduate at a higher rate than the student body as a whole - 60 percent versus 58 percent in Division I.
But student-athletes fare worse in the top-rated athletic programs in the country, and in particular at universities that are both academic and athletic powerhouses, such as the University of Florida.
At UF, 51 percent of student-athletes graduated versus 70 percent of the student body as a whole, according to UF's 2002 NCAA graduation report.
Notably lower for the 1995-96 entering student-athlete class were the graduation rates in football, 32 percent, and 29 percent for "men's other" sports, which at UF include golf, swimming and tennis.
UF administrators downplay the most obvious explanation for the numbers: At schools with both lofty admissions standards and extreme expectations for its sports programs, significant numbers of incoming student-athletes are far less prepared for the rigors of the university than their non-athlete counterparts.

Big sport, big disparity

UF officials cry foul at the NCAA graduation formula, saying it penalizes Florida for having competitive programs that see players go pro early or transfer to other universities because they aren't happy with their playing time.
"People think in the world of big-time college sports, that all these kids do is play athletics and that academics is so secondary," UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said. "It's really not true."
"Our graduation rates are improving every year," he said.
But UF doesn't perform well in graduation rates when compared with the other schools in the SEC, a powerhouse league where pro defections and student-athlete transfers are common.
According to a recent analysis by USA Today focusing on schools rated by the Bowl Championship Series, UF ranks among the worst in the SEC when the percentage of graduating athletes is compared with the graduation rate of the overall student body at each school.
The newspaper's analysis used an average of the past four graduating classes.
The disparity is larger in certain sports, including football, among schools that participate in major bowl games.
A recent survey in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that 36 of the 50 football teams that played in bowl games last season graduated players at lower rates than those of their schools' male student populations.
This month's Outback Bowl featured the Gators - whose 32 percent NCAA graduation rate for the 1995-96 freshman football class was less than half the 67 percent rate for the entire male student body - and the University of Michigan Wolverines - whose 1995-96 football freshman graduation rate was 55 percent, compared with 81 percent for the male student body.
"It's hard for me to know why that happens," said Dr. Nick Cassisi, UF's faculty representative to the NCAA and SEC.
"We are concerned," he said. "What we're trying to do right now is conduct exit interviews to try and understand why the students are at risk and why our rates aren't as good as the other schools."

Several explanations

At the vast majority of schools, where athletics don't overshadow the academic culture and whose athletes are less likely to have pro dreams, student-athletes do better than the student body as a whole.
Several explanations are frequently cited for this phenomenon.
One suggests that having a full scholarship relieves student-athletes of the financial pressures that drive other students out of college.
Another is that many universities have extensive tutoring and advising support systems in place to keep student-athletes on track. And, some say, those advisers are apt to steer students to easier classes or majors that keep them eligible to play.
That case could be made at UF, where almost 23 percent of student-athletes enroll in the College of Health and Human Performance.
A 2001 report by UF's Intercollegiate Athletic Committee found that an even higher percentage of student-athletes "at risk" for academic failure choose the college - 33 percent compared with 20 percent of other athletes. Of non-athletes in the survey, only 5.5 percent chose Health and Human Performance.
Originally called the College of Health, Physical Education and Athletics, a faculty task force considered dissolving the college or merging it with another college last year during a strategic planning debate.
That suggestion prompted Health and Human Performance professor Sig Fagerberg to say, "Where will they put all the athletes?"
In defense of the enrollment figures, the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee report said it's no surprise that student-athletes are interested in "a career in health science education, recreation, parks and tourism, and exercise and sports science."
The other top colleges for student-athletes are business, with 9.7 percent of student-athletes compared with 14 percent of the 391 non-athletes tracked in the report; and Liberal Arts and Sciences, where 49.5 percent of student-athletes and 42.5 percent of the non-athletes enrolled.
Keith Carodine, UF's associate athletic director for academic affairs, said "it would be unethical" for counselors to steer student-athletes into specific majors.
"We've got to let them try what they think they want to do," he said.

Taking the money

The NCAA graduation rates, and stories written about them, clearly rankle Carodine.
"You read that on face value, and you look at it thinking everybody flunked out, and it's just false," he said.
Like Emmitt Smith, he said, some of those who don't graduate on time are jumping to the pros.
For third-year UF student-athlete Ian Scott, getting down to the wire in a demanding major made it difficult to juggle his dual dreams of getting a degree and playing professional football.
So two days after playing in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, Scott - who has enough academic credits to be classified a senior - announced he was leaving UF early to enter the NFL draft.
"Getting a degree is important to him, and he has all intentions of doing that," Teresa Scott, Ian's mother, said last week. "But he realized that even with only 26 hours left to graduate, with the type of courses he had, he wouldn't have been able to finish by next year (if he also played football).
"In industrial and systems engineering, a lot of his remaining classes are scheduled in the afternoon," she said. "So with football consuming so much time and energy, he realized it would be very difficult to balance the two in that type of degree."
"I'm confident he'll get his degree and that he'll be successful in whatever he decides to do," Teresa Scott said.
In addition to those 1 to 2 percent who do go pro - primarily in football, basketball and baseball - others drop out in their final spring semester to try out for pro teams, enroll in mini-camps and otherwise work on trying to improve their potential for being drafted.
Those who are drafted by pro teams may get an offer of $50,000 to spend the spring lifting weights in their new hometown instead of finishing out school at UF, Carodine said.
"It's kind of like, 'Am I going to come back here and take another class, or am I going to go get this bonus money to go lift?' " he said. "The reality of the situation is if the man or woman is going to get paid to go to a mini-camp or to lift weights, they're going to go get paid."
Other players, finding themselves locked in fierce competition for playing time with other standout athletes, transfer to different schools.
"You'll find that at this level, at the Division I level, most people leave because, 'I'm not happy with my playing time,' " Carodine said.
Take Brock Berlin for example, a top-caliber quarterback who transferred to Miami last year rather than sit on the bench behind starter Rex Grossman.
While he was a Gator, Berlin made the All-SEC academic honor roll, and he will almost certainly graduate from Miami, Carodine said.
"But he will always count against UF because he transferred," he said.
Schools with high rates of transfer students may be intentionally recruiting student-athletes they know won't get much playing time so they won't sign up with the competition, said Ward Scott, College Senate president at Santa Fe Community College.
A Gainesville High School football coach in the 1960s, Scott wrote a memoir called "Stadium" that is pending publication with Hill Street Press in Athens, Ga., which chronicles the right of passage from high school to college sports.
It's also possible the school is admitting student-athletes who are underqualified academically, Scott said.
Student-athletes also transfer for other reasons not related to either academics or athletics.
"You'll get some reasons, just like traditional students, saying this is too far from home," Carodine said. "We have had some kids come through here whose intention was not to do well academically. They are looking at the (professional) level of play.
"And like the rest of the student body, we get some student-athletes who come here expecting to party and have a good time," he said. "They are a very, very small minority, but those are the kids who get all the press and attention."

Driving academics up

He acknowledged that other Division I schools, including those UF competes against in the SEC, face all of those same problems.
But Carodine said he much prefers the annual graduation rate analysis calculated by the American Football Coaches Association. He said it provides a much truer picture of how well UF did by its players by excluding those who transferred to other schools in good academic standing with athletic eligibility remaining.
All SEC schools reported their results to the football coaches' association, but in the final analysis only Florida and Vanderbilt graduated more than 70 percent of their players.
But if there are fewer academic failures than there once were at UF, the reality that some athletes will not make the scholastic cut is an accepted fact of life in a system in which poorly prepared high school students are matched up against academic all-stars.
The state's 5-year-old Bright Futures Scholarship program has kept closer to home many Florida high school graduates who would have been bound for the Ivy Leagues or other prestigious out-of-state schools.
The increased competition has driven the average academic credentials for incoming freshmen at UF steadily upwards, while those for athletes dipped in 2000-2001.
The disparity between their graduation rates and the student body as a whole seems bound to increase.
"The greater the disparity between the average student and the average student-athlete, the harder the Office of Student Life will have to work to make up the difference," UF Admissions Director Bill Kolb said.
Between 1997, when Bright Futures was started, and 2002, the high school grade-point average for the average UF entering freshman has gone from 3.59 to 3.81. The average SAT score has risen from 1,199 (out of a possible 1,600) to 1,231.
Meanwhile, the average predictive index for student-athletes in the 2000-2001 signing class was slightly lower than it was five years ago. The predictive index predicts how well students will do in their first year at UF, based on an analysis of high school grades and college admissions test scores.
It's not fair to throw less qualified student-athletes into that kind of situation, said one Gainesville High School teacher who taught both Scott, who is as strong academically as he is athletically, and Orien Greene, a basketball standout and mediocre GHS student.
Greene squeaked into UF academically three years ago and transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette after last season, in part because of grades.
"I've seen students go off to prestigious schools and the academic rigors are way beyond them," said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. "They just don't have the background, and with a lot of tutoring they may be able to catch up, but athletes' time really is consumed by athletics and I really think that's unfair to the student-athletes."
Greene's high school coach, Anthony Long, now a coach at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, said, "UF does a good job putting in place academic tutors and other resources that are made available to the athletes.
"But it still is very demanding," he said. "I think a lot of the burden falls on the athlete and their time-management skills."

In black and white

For every student-athlete who makes it to the pros, 50 will join the non-athlete students in sending out resumes.
For every Emmitt Smith, there are many Monty Duncans. Duncan played four years for the Gators between 1990 and 1993, and then stuck around Gainesville working as a bouncer at the Purple Porpoise bar across from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Porpoise, where a generation of Gator fans slipped over at halftime for a beer before they stopped stamping hands and letting people back into the stadium, recently changed hands. The bar is now Gator City. Duncan kept his job.
There also is a racial element to disparity, with black student-athletes at UF graduating at a lower rate than white student-athletes across the board - 41 percent versus 54 percent for the class entering in 1995-96.
Carodine is quick to point out that the black-white disparity is "not unique to UF."
"There's a lot of speculation why that exists nationally, in that a lot of the African-American students are coming from urban schools, and quite frankly, the country has ignored urban high schools," he said.
But black student-athletes as a group come to UF less likely to graduate, according to a Sun analysis of the incoming credentials of student-athletes provided by the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee.
Of the 116 student-athletes in the 2000-2001 recruiting class, 38 - 33 percent - were black.
But when the predicted first-year grade-point averages were ranked - an analysis UF does using high school grades and college admissions test scores - black students tended to be clustered at the bottom and were all but absent from the top of the list.
"It's more an issue of socioeconomic class than race," Carodine said, noting that college success is strongly linked to high school preparation.
"You go and look into some of these areas and you might have some parents who aren't educated or some parents who can't even help their kids with their homework.
"The person who comes from a very rural background has some of the educational challenges as, say, a kid from Miami," he said.
Foley, the athletic director, said, "Obviously some of the people we're recruiting have special circumstances, and I'm not talking about their athletic ability.
"There may be some outside situations that may have caused them early on in their academic career not to have the appropriate focus," he said. "Again, I feel very good that this institution, since I've been the athletic director, has always evaluated people based on whether they think they have a chance to graduate."
That black students graduate at a lower rate is related to lower graduation rates in football and basketball, where they're more heavily represented. Sixty-four of the of the 118 players on the football team in fall 2002 were black, for example, and nine of the 13 players on the basketball team that semester were black.

Making progress

UF has made some progress in graduation rates in recent years, especially in basketball, which has one of the lowest graduation rates nationally for Division I schools. The 2002 NCAA graduation report showed 67 percent of UF basketball players in the 1995-96 class graduating, as compared with 43 percent at all Division I schools.
Head Basketball Coach Billy Donovan has seen two of three seniors he recruited graduate. Brent Wright and Major Parker graduated; Udonis Haslem left early to go kick around the European pro leagues, but is expected to return and graduate.
Donovan's three seniors this season are all on track for diplomas - Matt Bonner and Justin Hamilton in May and Brett Nelson in the summer, according to UF's Sports Information Office.
But for every graduate under Donovan thus far, the same number of his recruits have headed to the NBA without degrees.
Mike Miller and Donnell Harvey both went pro early, and both in the first round of the 2000 draft. The Orlando Magic took Miller with the fifth pick and the New York Knicks took Harvey with the 22nd pick; Harvey now plays for the Denver Nuggets.
Nothing seems likely to reverse the trend towards going pro early. As college players are leaving earlier and earlier, an increasing number of high school basketball stars are skipping college altogether.
"To prevent them from going (pro) . . . that's not going to happen," Foley said. "There's too much money at that level.
"Nobody has passed a rule that says they have to stay four years," he said. "I wish they would."
"All you can do while they're here is to make sure they're applying the appropriate focus to academics," Foley said.
If a football or basketball player thinks he has even an outside chance of joining a pro franchise, one can hardly blame him for doing his all to develop athletically. They don't call them "the money sports" for nothing.
The average starting salary in Florida last year for a graduate with a bachelor's degree was $36,363. The average starting salary in the NFL was $1.123 million, according to an ESPN analysis of the 2002 draft.
A similar analysis wasn't available for the average NBA starters, but the league minimum salary is $350,000. The top 13 picks in the NBA draft are expected to earn a combined $96,915,240 over the next three years, according to ESPN.

'Have a Plan B'

Carodine said UF shouldn't be stigmatized for having athletic programs so successful they propel student-athletes into high-paying careers.
Carodine pointed to basketball player Matt Bonner, whose GPA is 3.98.
"If he turns pro before he gets his diploma, he counts against you in graduation rates," he said.
"So, has the University of Florida failed Matt Bonner? I don't think so," Carodine said.
It's a sentiment to which regular students can relate.
"If I'm going to be able to make millions of dollars a year, I wouldn't necessarily care about my education either," said James Davis, a freshman from Palm Coast who came to UF with a 4.0 grade-point average and a perfect 1,600 score on the SAT.
Some UF athletes are convinced coming in, or early on, that they will likely leave school before they graduate to go pro - the only question is when.
Although he's only a freshman, standout basketball guard Anthony Roberson, who is averaging almost 15 points a game this season, wouldn't be paying attention if he didn't have one eye on the pros.
"If the NBA came calling before I graduate, I can't sit here and say that wouldn't be a hard decision," said Roberson, who hasn't yet decided whether to major in business management or communication.
"I'd love to face that decision," he said. "When it comes, I'd sit down with my family and we'd talk about it."
But injuries, poor performance or other unexpected circumstances can block even a seemingly sure path to the pros.
After Head Football Coach Steve Spurrier took a job coaching the Washington Redskins in the NFL, many thought Gator quarterback Rex Grossman would follow him to the pros after his sophomore season, in which he was named runner-up for the Heisman trophy. Grossman was persuaded to stay, but his junior year was disappointing enough to dim his prospects for being tapped early in the pro draft. When he announced this month he'll go pro Grossman knew he'd slipped from a possible first-round draft choice to a possible second- or third-round selection.
In what was expected to be his final college game before turning pro, Miami's sophomore All-American running back Willis McGahee was hit with what could be a career-ending knee injury. He tore three ligaments in his knee early in the fourth quarter of the Hurricanes' Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State earlier this month.
A $2.5 million Lloyds of London insurance policy, written by Gainesville agent Keith Lerner, could soften the blow if he's not able to recuperate and return to football. His family took out a $20,000 loan to buy the policy, according to published reports.
"Some of those kids think that they're headed for the pros, and they may come to school thinking that," Foley said. "But the reality is very few can make a living playing professional sports.
"It's a message we have to keep hammering on them: 'Folks, you have got to be realistic; you have to get this degree.'
"We have got to make sure they're moving towards their degree, even if they leave here without it - if they're going to try pro camp or kick around playing minor league ball or whatever it is - so they're in a position to come back here and finish very, very quickly."
Linebacker Byron "Bam" Hardmon, who graduated in December with a sociology degree, said he hopes to make the jump to the NFL.
"But the coaches and others instill in you that only about one out of 10 really make it in the NFL," he said.
"So we do try to understand and get our degree," he said. "You always have to have a Plan B."
Carrie Miller can be reached at 338-3103 or millerc@gvillesun. com.

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