Finding solutions

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 1:47 a.m.

The lure of pro sports means that many athletes, such as Rex Grossman, won't graduate in traditional time.

The large and growing chasm between the "haves" and "have-nots" of college sports programs is keeping all of them from doing everything they could be doing to support student-athletes, officials say.
Profitable powerhouse programs, small schools that can barely afford their sports programs and NCAA officials agree that tension between money on one hand, and competitiveness on the other, is holding back proposals that include:
  • Enhancing academic programming in the off-season.
  • Increasing athletic scholarships to include the full cost of attendance.
  • Providing scholarship aid to student-athletes who try the pros but need to come back for a degree.
    Roughly 20 to 30 university sports programs take in more money than they spend, NCAA officials say.
    The University of Florida's Athletic Association is one of the "haves," generating about $34 million in revenue last year from ticket sales, television revenue, donations and other income associated with UF sports programs.
    For three days, The Sun has chronicled what a sports program that's willing to spend money on academics can do.
    Even though many student-athletes come into UF far less prepared than the student body as a whole, by spending nearly $2 million a year on tutors, advisers, counselors and other academic support, the University Athletic Association manages to keep most student-athletes eligible to compete and on track to graduate, if they have the drive.
    'The right thing to do' UF officials say they want to do more - pay for summer school for all athletes; pay the full cost of attendance and not just tuition, books and room and board; and let student-athletes who leave early for the pros come back, on scholarship, to earn their degrees.
    But UF Associate Athletic Director Jamie McCloskey said he sees the other side.
    "Say I'm athletic director at a small school," McCloskey said.
    "I'm all for helping student-athletes, that's why we're here. But as we're struggling financially - and as we have the challenges of maintaining gender-equity and creating additional opportunities for women while maintaining opportunities for men - now to look at having to spend additional money on summer school and financial aid seems impossible.
    "If we can't afford to do that, I sure as heck don't want another school down the road to be able to do that."
    Kevin Lennon, who works in the NCAA membership services department, puts it this way: "There's a constant tension between doing what's best for students, and a concern that we don't create an advantage for one school over another in competition.
    "That's just a natural tension that exists in all of our legislative proposals, and something we're trying to work our membership through."
    Some people are a little less understanding, including Keith Carodine, UF's associate athletic director for academic affairs.
    "It's disgustingly ridiculous," Carodine said of the NCAA prohibition against extending athletic scholarships to students who want to come back years later and finish up.
    "I have a student right now who played tennis for UF, tried the pro circuit and now she's come back and is working for us part-time to finish her degree," he said.
    "Here's what's stupid - I can't put her back on full scholarship, because the rules don't allow you to put them on scholarship to finish. It's hypocrisy is what it is.
    "We're going to act like we want these people to graduate," Carodine said. "OK, then let us put them back on aid.
    "I'm going to tell you why people don't do it," he continued. "Because if Florida and Georgia - your BCS schools - would do that, (the other schools would say) 'Well you would have a competitive recruiting advantage, because you can afford to do it.'
    "Well, don't you agree it's the right thing to do?"
    Ruling the 'roost' The Bowl Championship Series schools include the members of six conferences - Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern Conference - and the University of Notre Dame. They "rule the roost," when it comes to college football, according to Rick Bay, athletic director of San Diego State, a Mountain West Conference school.
    The winners of each conference, along with two at-large teams, are invited to participate in the most lucrative football bowl games: the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose bowls.
    An NCAA reform proposal in the hopper now would allow schools to expand the amount of financial aid to students, who now can be awarded room, board, tuition and books. The new proposal would include categories of "supplies, transportation and miscellaneous."
    Carol Iwaoka, associate commissioner of the Big 10 Conference and member of the NCAA financial aid committee, said the idea will face opposition even though it would permit, not require, schools to provide it.
    "All of those issues could be viewed as institutional rather than as being regulated by the NCAA," she said.
    But the NCAA membership restricts them, she said, "because of what appears to be the common concern that if one person does it, there would be a 'keeping up with the Joneses' arms race . . .rather than student welfare being a priority to do it."
    Bay said he envies the amount of academic support UF can provide its student-athletes.
    Informed that UF spent $1.93 million last year on academic support services to 460 student athletes, Bay said, "Wow," adding that San Diego State spends $150,000 for about the same number of students.
    With a $17-million-a-year budget - roughly half that of UF - Bay said, "I think it would be terrific if we could bring everybody back and had the resources to help them finish.
    "The problem is we - and when I say that I mean all the schools outside the (63) Bowl Championship Series schools - it's all we can do to pay the scholarships of student-athletes who are eligible."
    Bay, who previously was athletic director for two BCS conference schools, Minnesota and Ohio State, said going to a 16-team playoff in football (there's still a debate among playoff proponents over how many teams should compete) could raise a lot of money to support academic reforms.
    Starting some sort of playoff system is a popular subject among college football fans, many of whom are frustrated that polls and computers determine the two teams that meet in the BCS championship game.
    For the 119 Division I-A schools it would raise a lot more money, which, if distributed in the same fashion as the NCAA basketball tournament revenues, would help smaller schools compete both on the field and in the arena of academic support, Bay said.
    "Right now, the six (BCS) conferences control about 95 percent of all post-season revenue and yet there's about 45 percent of Division I-A that is outside the BCS and shares only about 5 percent," he said.
    "What this does, obviously, is inhibit those outside the BCS from funding lots of things, not the least of which is (academic support to student-athletes.)"
    By making more money through a playoff and spreading the wealth, Bay said, "We would have schools that are much more able to provide services to our student-athletes that are being proposed by some BCS schools."
    It would make things more interesting for the fans, too, he said.
    "To me, one of the charms of the Division I-A basketball tournament is that you have the Cinderellas, you have the smaller schools that can reasonably compete, in part because they share in that tournament revenue," Bay said.
    "Even the NFL and the NBA have figured out that the best way to keep their enterprises strong is to spread the wealth and have some sort of socialistic approach to what they're doing."
    'Even playing field' Other proposals for improving academics are not tied to money.
    Dr. Nick Cassisi, UF's faculty representative to the SEC and the NCAA, said, "We in the SEC, have tried for years and years and years to allow freshmen to come in the summer. We would start the clock in the summer - you'd still get only X number of years - but they'd do better academically."
    Other schools object to the idea, saying it would give UF a recruiting advantage, Cassisi said.
    But the real reason other schools object, he said, is that they don't want UF's student-athletes to progress and stay eligible to play against their teams.
    "They'll never tell you that, but the other schools are counting on our students flunking out," he said. "We're banking on them graduating.
    "By getting them in earlier, what we can do is help them get caught up to the actual student body," Cassisi said. "They're competing against very bright kids. Every year the (grade-point averages) and SAT scores are going up."
    The NCAA could help UF and other schools that are serious about educating students by raising the bar, Carodine said.
    "The biggest thing that needs to happen is that they should increase the number of core courses from 13 to 16," Carodine said. "We'd probably see a little bit better grades in the recruiting."
    NCAA "core courses" are by and large the college prep courses, and must be in the following areas: English, mathematics, natural/physical science, social science, foreign language, computer science or nondoctrinal religion/philosophy.
    A new NCAA rule passed in the fall says that beginning on Aug. 1, student-athletes must have 14 core courses to be eligible for an athletic scholarship rather than the previous standard of 13.
    The NCAA has seen improved academic success since it first raised the core course requirement.
    The 1995-96 class - the first to be required to have 13 core high school courses rather than the previous standard of 11 - graduated from college at a higher rate than any group since the NCAA began keeping track in 1984.
    Requiring 16 core courses would also prevent the phenomenon of senior-year "grade-inflation," where high school teachers try to help student-athletes in their quest to get a college scholarship.
    "Some people will act like all of a sudden the kid becomes an 'A' student in their senior year," Carodine said. "That's not possible.
    "Going to 16 eliminates that because to do that they're going to have to take four or five courses every year they're in school, from ninth grade on."
    But raising eligibility standards quickly could close a door on kids from low socioeconomic groups, who face greater challenges in preparing for college.
    "We definitely want better-prepared students coming out," Lennon said. "But we want to make sure we don't have a disparate impact on any particular population."
    Of course, universities don't have to wait for the NCAA to make a rule nationally. They can create one on their own campus or petition their league or state university system to make changes.
    For instance, there's a rule at Florida universities, known as the "Deion Sanders Rule," which prevents players from competing in postseason play if they miss final exams. This past season, FSU quarterback Chris Rix was suspended from playing in the Sugar Bowl when he overslept and missed a final exam in a religion class.
    The rule was instituted by the state Board of Regents after Sanders, an FSU cornerback, played in the 1989 Sugar Bowl despite missing all of his final exams. FSU went on to lose the Sugar Bowl this year, when Georgia's defense shut down both the Seminoles' third- and fourth-string quarterbacks. The University of Florida could decide on its own to require 16 core courses in high school. But that would put UF at a disadvantage in recruiting.
    Bay said with Myles Brand at the helm he's hopeful the NCAA will navigate a middle ground through the minefield. Brand, a former Indiana University president known for firing basketball coach Bobby Knight, is the first sitting university president to be offered the job.
    His appointment is seen as a signal the NCAA is interested in serious academic reform, a focus Brand confirmed in speeches to the organization's annual conference over the weekend.
    Bay said, "It's going to take, I think, a pretty enlightened group of people at the highest level to bring about a more even playing field for everyone."
    Carrie Miller can be reached at 338-3103 or millerc@gvillesun. com.
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