Beyond the glory

NCAA champs: Building on the Terps' on-court achievements requires more focus on academics.

April 07, 2002

NOW THAT the University of Maryland men's basketball team calls itself national champs, the time is right for College Park educators to pay more attention to the vexing matter of what their highly prized athletes do in campus classrooms.

For far too many college players -- at UM and across the country -- academics' main purpose is to stay eligible to play. This is just part of the systemic corruption of collegiate athletics, especially at programs in which players lust for the few spots in pro ball. The problem sometimes starts before high school.

Many colleges, Maryland included, are making more efforts to support their players academically. Almost all, Maryland included, need to do more.

Whether many big-time college basketball players actually get much else from their schools than playing time was underscored recently by an NCAA report on their graduation rates -- one in which Maryland was ranked low. Only 19 percent of Terps freshmen from 1991 through 1994 graduated within six years, the study found.

UM does better than some major college programs, such as the University of Oklahoma, where no basketball player graduated. But the Terrapins' rate is about half the national average (35 percent) and far less than those at Kansas (64 percent) and Indiana (43 percent), the rest of this year's Final Four.

Maryland coach Gary Williams and others challenge NCAA calculations, noting that schools don't get credit for every player.

There are other caveats: Some players turn pro, some graduate later, some entered as big academic risks, some leave without degrees but with improved prospects. And this year's Terps may well graduate at a higher rate.

If so, some credit goes to the UM athletic program's academic center, which offers more than 100 advisers, tutors and learning specialists for 700 players. The center boasts of sharp increases in academic successes.

But the NCAA study rated all schools on the same criteria, and the Terps' overall record has been comparatively poor. Even the most ardent UM defender should acknowledge room for improvement.

The most difficult part of this problem stems from choices freely made by these young players themselves. But it also stems from adults' decisions during recruiting and after these extraordinarily gifted athletes arrive.

College Park President C.D. "Dan" Mote clearly understands this. Every week this season, Dr. Mote reportedly took time to talk with the Terps' leader, Juan Dixon, touching on matters beyond basketball. Mr. Dixon, academically ineligible to play when he entered College Park, nears his degree.

If Coach Williams and the university want to build on last week's tremendous achievement and take Terps basketball to an even higher level, Dr. Mote's weekly talks with Mr. Dixon should symbolize the sort of renewed commitment to Maryland players that will be required off the court.

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