Colleges urged to back up reforms

Panel tries to bolster strict academic rules

May 15, 2007|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,Sun reporter

Washington -- Earlier this semester, when Maryland guards D.J. Strawberry and Mike Jones left the university in pursuit of professional basketball careers, they followed in the footsteps of dozens of former players - including ex-Terp Len Elmore, who in 1974 skipped out of College Park early to join the NBA.

"My admission has been always that I kind of blew off my second semester way back in 1974 in order to prepare myself for the pros," said Elmore, who has since received his law degree from Harvard. "In reality, it wasn't just doing that. It was just an opportunity to more than anything else exert my freedom. This is unfortunately what 22-year-olds do, but that was a different environment."

The difference now is that early departures could cost a program scholarships.

In light of the NCAA's recent announcement that 112 Division I teams will be penalized for failing to meet academic benchmarks, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics yesterday urged college presidents to "not let up one bit" and resist pressure expected by fans and coaches to weaken the NCAA's latest attempt at academic reform.

The onus is on the coaches, players and administrators to keep college basketball players in school and eligible - demands that are not only reasonable, Elmore and other members of the Knight Commission said yesterday, but are also expected if programs want to avoid NCAA sanctions.

"Coaches have great influence over young people," said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president for member services. "We're seeing lots of coaches around have success keeping their kids in school and having them stay eligible."

Of the 494 student-athletes who left school early last year to turn professional and had waivers submitted on their behalf, 47 were men's basketball players and received waivers because they left in good academic standing.

If an athlete leaves in good academic standing to turn professional, a program can apply to the NCAA for a waiver, if it wants to avoid sanctions. Good academic standing means the athlete finishes the spring semester, and is progressing toward a degree at the rate expected by the NCAA. He or she must achieve certain benchmarks for grade point average and credit hours.

The key to meeting the NCAA's academic standards is to plan ahead and take advantage of resources like online classes and summer sessions, Lennon said.

"You count on a student graduating in 3 1/2 years," he said. "In December, they ought to be able to get their degree if they take advantage of all the summer school opportunities you have. You plan ahead of time. This is your senior year, what do we need to do? How do we work it out so you are so close to that degree before you want to make that decision?

"I think we're seeing more of those conversations occurring earlier with students," he said. "Look, are you going to come back after the [college] season is over? If you're not, what do we need to do to get you academically eligible?"

Maryland associate athletic director Anton Goff, who oversees the academic support unit, said that is what officials at Maryland have been doing. He said that's why three of the five scholarship seniors are expected to graduate this month.

"We're mapping out a four-year plan and trying to accelerate it," he said. "We've got a blueprint that works."

All four seniors on the roster from two seasons ago left in the spring without graduating, so Maryland could not apply for waivers for them. The same applies for Strawberry and Jones, who will likely have an effect on next year's Academic Progress Rate (APR). The APR provides a snapshot of eligibility, retention and graduation for each sport.

Maryland earned a three-year average APR score of 908 this year but has not been penalized by the NCAA because of a margin for error that the NCAA calls a "squad size adjustment." That cushion will disappear in 2008. If the program again has an average APR below the cut score of 925, and it has players like Jones and Strawberry who have left school before the end of the semester, it could lose as many as two scholarships.

In addition to keeping his athletes eligible, it is now even more critical that Maryland coach Gary Williams persuade his players to finish the semester in good standing before considering turning pro.

Williams was unavailable to comment yesterday, but Elmore said Williams' players have an obligation to the program.

"Unfortunately it's been an established culture," Elmore said. "What the academic reform has to do is break that cycle. It's got to bring attention to the fact how important it is for these young men to continue in school, and just as importantly for them to accept some responsibility for being a member of the program and a student in the university. Their obligation is not only to themselves, but also to that university."

Goff said it isn't that simple.

"It's tough to get a kid to buy into the fact they have an obligation to the university," Goff said. "You've got young players in the back of their minds thinking, `I'm going to come back and get my degree anyway, so I need to seize the opportunity."

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