Behind NCAA stats: a complex picture

Diplomas: Some basketball players at Maryland's public universities who graduate are overlooked in report. Others achieve their goals without degrees.

September 19, 1999|By Michael Hill and Paul McMullen | Michael Hill and Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Mike Smith's journey through the higher education system is not that unusual. He started at one college in 1992, transferred to another after his sophomore year, lost interest in school for a while, went to work and realized he needed a degree. Now, at 25, he is back in the classroom hoping to finish in the spring.

But since Smith started school at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore on a basketball scholarship, his failure to get a degree from that school has made him a negative statistic in a highly publicized and disheartening report on graduation rates.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association study showed that Maryland public colleges failed to graduate within six years any of the 16 men's basketball players on scholarship who entered as freshmen in 1992.

It was a black eye for the state. But a closer look reveals shades of gray.

The NCAA's annual graduation rate summary uses standards that don't account for students who transfer and graduate on time, or leave school for professional careers and return years later to get their degrees.

The players and people who know them give assorted reasons why these students didn't graduate from Maryland schools -- the lure of professional basketball, the crisis of a coaching change, the problem of balancing sports and school, a lack of academic preparation in high school, inadequate academic support in college, ill-advised decisions that young people often make.

But The Sun's review of the recruiting class of 1992 found a number of young men leading successful lives, despite the failure to graduate -- and several players who did receive degrees.

Kyle Locke's degree should have been included in the graduation rate report.

He came to Coppin State College in 1992 on a basketball scholarship and graduated in four years, but Coppin erroneously listed him in an earlier report.

Of the 16 freshmen who were on basketball scholarships at the state's six public colleges, he is the only one who received a degree under the NCAA's standards.

Cameron Nekkers, Coppin State's other freshman, transferred to the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and got a degree in 1996.

Nemanja Petrovic left the University of Maryland, College Park, after his freshman year, transferring to St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, where he received his bachelor's degree in finance and his master's in international business. He is listed as not graduating in the NCAA statistics because the University of Maryland is not on his diploma.

Felton Scott is in the same boat: He played for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County but got his degree from another school in the six years allowed by the NCAA.

Damon Tweedy, who also came to UMBC in 1992, played basketball there, graduated in 1996 and is in medical school at Duke University in North Carolina. He wasn't counted because the NCAA tracks only those on athletic scholarships. Tweedy attended on an academic scholarship.

The Sun talked to 11 members of the recruiting class of 1992 as well as parents, high school and college coaches, and administrators to learn what happened to the players in college and later.

Two are enrolled in college and expect to graduate in May, including Smith, who is majoring in sports management at Towson University while working in community relations for the new minor league basketball team, the Baltimore BayRunners.

Playing for pay

At least five left school without their degrees to pursue basketball. None made it to the National Basketball Association, but they have played for pay around the world.

"You've got to take care of your family," said Mario Lucas, recruited by the University of Maryland. He's played in South America since leaving College Park. "The opportunity to play [professionally] doesn't come around every day. My intention was to come back for summer school, but I can't turn down jobs."

The lure of professional play has never been greater because of the expansion of opportunities, mainly overseas. Ventures like the International Basketball League will start play this year in Baltimore and seven other cities in this country.

"Since we started this place in 1984, we've said that playing professionally was a 1-in-10,000 dream," says Richard E. Lapchick, who directs Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

"But with all these international leagues, that's changed. It's a well-paid job, and for an adventurous young man -- or woman, as there are a growing number of women's leagues -- it's a pretty good experience, a way to spend a few years abroad."

Lucas would agree. He estimates he has made between $150,000 and $200,000, mainly free of taxes, with his living expenses often paid by the foreign teams. Had he received his degree and used it to work with children, as he intends to do one day, Lucas says he would have made far less.

And he probably wouldn't have learned to speak fluent Spanish.

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