UM athletes also have fears about housing security

But off-campus, school's hands are tied


November 09, 2006|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

A group of University of Maryland athletes approached athletic department officials recently to express concerns about their housing. They were living off-campus and were worried about security because the front door of their apartment building was often found propped open.

The students were told to "talk to your parents, talk to your landlord," said Kathleen Worthington, executive senior associate athletic director. But beyond inviting them to apply for campus housing, there was little else the athletic department could do.

The example reflects the limitations on universities that want to keep their athletes safe, but are bound -- in part by NCAA rules -- to allow them the same housing options as other students.

The issue of athletes' housing was raised by the death Tuesday of Miami defensive lineman Bryan Pata, who was shot at his off-campus apartment complex.

Like the University of Miami, Maryland's College Park campus is in an urban setting and its students need to be wary of crime.

"Stuff does happen around here," Maryland cornerback Isaiah Gardner said. "[Prince George's] County can be kind of tough. We do concern ourselves, that's why we never really go out alone, to make sure we're together and safe and keep each other in check."

Years ago, many football players and other athletes were routinely placed in their own dormitories that made them relatively easy to monitor. But critics said athletic dorms were too isolating -- keeping the athletes from being integrated into student life -- and the dorms were banned by the NCAA in the early 1990s.

At Maryland, which has 27 sports teams, there are few restrictions on where athletes live. All freshmen, athletes or not, are guaranteed residence hall spots. Though the vast majority of freshmen live on campus, it is not mandatory, said university spokesman David Ottalini.

"We want our student-athletes to have the same choices that normal students have," Worthington said. "I would say that the majority of our athletes live on campus."

Quarterbacks coach John Donovan said the football players live on campus, but he still worries.

"Of course, you worry about them. It's like it's your own kids," he said. "You can coach them all you want, but you don't know how they're going to handle it or who they're going to come across."

Maryland has 35 residence halls, housing 8,000 students. Another 2,500 students live in privately managed apartment communities on campus.

Worthington said housing-related problems with off-campus athletes are "uncommon." She declined to say which team's members had approached athletic officials with their off-campus security issues, saying only that it had occurred within the past two years.

There are always off-campus risks. In April 2005, a fire at his College Park house killed Michael Scrocca, 22, of Branchburg, N.J., just weeks before he was to graduate with a degree in finance.

Maryland says it has a system in place to try to detect potential problems when it can.

The school's athletes are guided by a support staff that has two counselors assigned to the football team. The idea is to prepare athletes not only for classes, but also for adapting to their campus -- or off-campus -- environment.

"My staff not only deals with academic issues but life issues, and we serve as mentors," said Anton Goff, who oversees the support team.

Maryland began taking a closer look at its athletes' lives -- and potentially risky behavior -- after the 1986 cocaine death of basketball star Len Bias. Among other things, the university began to better study how athletes were performing in classes and the extent of any drug use.

Sun reporter Heather A. Dinich contributed to this article.

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