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News: College athletes studies guided toward 'major in eligibility'


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College athletes studies guided toward 'major in eligibility'

By Jill Lieber Steeg, Jodi Upton, Patrick Bohn and Steve Berkowitz, USA TODAY

Steven Cline left Kansas State University last spring with memories of two years as a starting defensive lineman for a major-college football team. He left with a diploma, credits toward a master's degree and a place on the 2007 Big 12 Conference all-academic team.

He also left with regrets about accomplishing all of this by majoring in social sciences ? a program that drew 34% of the football team's juniors and seniors last season, compared with about 4% of all juniors and seniors at Kansas State. Cline says he found not-so-demanding courses that helped him have success in the classroom and on the field but did little for his dream of becoming a veterinarian.

"I realize I just wasted all my efforts in high school and college to get a social science degree," says Cline, who adds he did poorly in biology as a freshman, then chose what an athletics academic adviser told him would be an easier path.

His experience reflects how the NCAA's toughening of academic requirements for athletes has helped create an environment in which they are more likely to graduate than other students ? but also more likely to be clustered in programs without the academic demands most students face.

Some athletes say they have pursued ? or have been steered to ? degree programs that helped keep them eligible for sports but didn't prepare them for post-sports careers.

"A major in eligibility, with a minor in beating the system," says C. Keith Harrison, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, where he is associate director of the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

A USA TODAY study of the majors of juniors and seniors in five prominent sports at 142 of the NCAA's top-level schools shows athletes at many institutions clustering in certain majors, in some cases at rates highly disproportionate to those of all students.

The study involved the fall 2007 student rolls and the 2007-08 rosters for Division I teams in five sports ? football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball and softball.

All 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) were included, as were 22 other Division I schools with standout men's or women's basketball teams. Nearly 9,300 athletes across 654 teams were covered by the study. Among the findings:

?83% of the schools (118 of 142) had at least one team in which at least 25% of the juniors and seniors majored in the same thing. For example, seven of the 19 players on Stanford's baseball team majored in sociology.

?34% of the teams (222 of 654) had at least one such cluster of student-athletes.

?More than half of the clusters are what some analysts refer to as "extreme," in which at least 40% of athletes on a team are in the same major (125 of 235). All seven of the juniors and seniors on Texas-El Paso's men's basketball team majored in multidisciplinary studies, for example.

Education specialists say such clustering raises a range of potential problems, including academic fraud; certain majors and classes having dubious academic requirements; and coaches and athletics academic advisers inappropriately influencing students' decisions on majors and classes.

Clustering in relatively easy areas of study is one way athletes cope with the time demands they face from participating in sports, Cline and other athletes say. It also appears to be an unintended consequence of NCAA schools' decisions to make it easier for athletes to become eligible to play as freshmen but harder for them to remain eligible in later years.

"Clustering by itself is replicated in many parts of the university. It's not necessarily bad," NCAA President Myles Brand says.

"But when you have extreme clustering ? you really do have to ask some hard questions: Is there an adviser who's pushing students into this? Are there some faculty members who are too friendly with student-athletes? I'm not saying that's the case. But I think you have to ask those questions."

Brand adds that it's up to each school to do so. "There are limits to what the national office can, and should, do," he says. "Anything to do with the academic programs really falls entirely within the purview of the individual institutions."

Questions about clustering get at the basic social contract of college sports.

Instead of being paid, scholarship athletes get a free education. And, according to University of Hartford President Walter Harrison, who chairs the NCAA Division I Committee on Academic Performance: "There are many values of a college education, but among them is majoring in something that will prepare you for a satisfying career."

Cline believes that now. He arrived at Kansas State from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in 2003 and intended to pursue a pre-veterinary program.

"The athletics academic advisers emphasized it was going to be really difficult," he says. "But I tried it anyway."

When the biology class went badly, he and his advisers discussed options, including retaking the class. Homesick and wanting to finish college as soon as possible, he says, he "dropped down" to social sciences, a program Kansas State's website says is one of four interdisciplinary majors in the College of Arts and Sciences that "provide options for those who have not chosen a specialized major."

"The athletics academic advisers said, 'This is what everybody is doing. It's the easiest major,' " recalls Cline, who emphasizes that ultimately he ? not his advisers ? chose his degree program.

Cline completed his degree in four academic years. Afterward, with one season of athletic eligibility left, he stayed at Kansas State and spent the 2007-08 school year in a master's program in college student personnel.

The program is designed to prepare candidates for work at college "student affairs agencies," according to the university's website. Cline says he didn't complete it and doesn't intend to "because it wasn't what I wanted to do."

He now is working in construction so he can save money and try to return to school as a pre-vet student.

"The whole time I was at Kansas State, I felt stuck ? stuck in football, stuck in my major. ? It was a stupid effort on my part. I wouldn't advise any other athlete to do that. I'd tell them to choose a career ? a real career for their life after football and work toward it. Don't let anybody or anything take you off that path. Don't fool yourselves into thinking (you're) going to play (sports) professionally.

"Now I look back and say, 'Well, what did I really go to college for? Crap classes you won't use the rest of your life?' Social science is really nothing specific. ? I was majoring in football."

Kansas State provost M. Duane Nellis says the university tries "to be supportive of athletes to be able to pursue what they dream to have as their degree path.

"We've had starting athletes in basketball who went on to ? get into veterinary medicine. Any student can get out of sequence if they're in a prescribed curriculum ? and if they get out of sequence, it leads them down a different path. They also have to realize, when they decide to pursue athletics, there are time commitments and parameters around that."

'A mixed message being sent'

Cline's situation provides a window on the day-to-day machinery of big-time college sports, which can be a physical and psychological grind on student-athletes.

Basketball games, and a few football games, are played on weeknights. Sometimes games are played close to exams. It's not unusual for baseball teams to play five days a week, with games in three different towns.

"There's a mixed message being sent out here" about the importance of academics in college sports, Georgia Tech men's basketball coach Paul Hewitt said in June before the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Several athletes echo Hewitt's sentiments.

Former Boise State safety Marty Tadman was among the 48% of the football team's juniors and seniors majoring in communication during the 2007-08 academic year. Boise State's communication program also drew 50% of the juniors and seniors on the men's basketball and women's basketball teams.

"You hear which majors, and which classes, are the easiest and you take them," Tadman says. "You're going to school so you can stay in sports. You're not going for a degree. ? It's a joke."

Like other students, athletes are influenced by their peers. Former Southern California offensive lineman Drew Radovich majored in sociology, putting him among the 58% of the football team's juniors and seniors ? and 19% of USC's ? in that major. "If I went back and did it all over again, I wouldn't have picked" sociology, says Radovich, now with the Minnesota Vikings. "A lot of other offensive linemen were picking sociology, so I picked it."

Under NCAA rules, schools are required to make academic counseling and tutoring available to athletes.

These services can be provided and paid for by athletics departments, which have been making them ? and the facilities in which they are based ? increasingly elaborate in recent years.

And because of the NCAA's complex requirements, which often differ from those of a university or individual academic department, academic advisers are involved in many athletes' course selections.

'Perfect storm' for problems

With Division I athletes, that involvement usually stems from what's known as The 40-60-80 Rule, which took effect for athletes entering school after Aug. 1, 2003.

To stay eligible to play, athletes must complete 40% of their degree work by the end of their second year of enrollment, 60% by the end of their third year and 80% by the end of their fourth year. Under previous rules, those percentages were 25, 50 and 75.

The increased demands for progress toward a degree have been accompanied by reduced requirements for incoming athletes to be eligible to play as freshmen.

Until recently, incoming athletes had to have at least an 820 SAT score or 68 ACT sum score. Now, if they have a sufficient grade-point average in a set of core academic classes, they can be eligible as freshmen with any standardized score.

"It's a perfect storm formula" for pressure on advisers, says Gerald Gurney, senior associate athletics director for academics and student life at the University of Oklahoma. "A population of weaker students with higher (academic) demands," layered upon a national trend of academic departments raising requirements for entry into certain majors.

There also is a new NCAA rule that threatens penalties for teams with too many players who become academically ineligible or fail to graduate. Based on their annually published Academic Progress Rate (APR), teams can lose scholarships and eventually become ineligible for postseason play, either of which can embarrass a school and affect a team's ability to win.

Hewitt, the Georgia Tech men's basketball coach, bluntly articulated many coaches' view of the "unintended consequences" of the APR system at the Knight Commission meeting in June. He said then that when an NCAA official came to the Atlantic Coast Conference meetings four years ago to discuss the APR system, "almost every coach said: 'You understand what you're basically telling us. We're going to encourage our kids to take the easiest path to eligibility.'

"So if I'm at a Georgia Tech, I'm not going to tell a young man he can't major in engineering," Hewitt said. "But I certainly will counsel him before he takes that first class that ? if you decide to go down this road and for some reason you find it harder than you expected and you decide to change your major, you're probably more than likely going to end up being ineligible" for sports.

At Georgia Tech last year, 63% of the juniors and seniors on the men's basketball team majored in management. So did 83% of those on the baseball team and 82% of those on the football team. A little more than 11% of all juniors and seniors at the school were in the major.

Isma'il Muhammad, a basketball player who earned a management degree from Georgia Tech in 2005, said he considered majoring in international affairs, but "it just didn't make sense. I would have had to stop playing basketball," which he has been doing professionally outside the USA since graduating.

Asked why management is so popular among athletes, he said, "They want to own their own business or have other big aspirations. Also, we're not crazy. ? Was management easier than engineering? Of course, but Georgia Tech doesn't offer any easy classes or easy majors. It's not like I was a basketball player majoring in pottery."

Muhammad also says he has leads for post-basketball jobs. "Finding a job is not an issue even in this economy we have right now," he says. "A lot of people are affiliated with Tech and (are) fans of basketball and Coach Hewitt."

Bob Vomhof, a former Colorado State football player also still pursuing his sport in a lower level of the pro ranks, has similar confidence in his future prospects ? but with a retrospective different from Muhammad's.

Vomhof graduated with a degree in liberal arts, a program that last year had 65% of the junior and senior football players and about 2% of all juniors and seniors at the school. As a junior he wanted to change his major to construction management, he says, but decided that with the time he had to spend on football he couldn't make the move.

Speaking from his hometown of Gillette, Wyo., after spending part of the past Arena Football League season on the San Jose SaberCats practice squad, he says of his outlook: "I think I'll be OK. No matter how bad the job market gets everywhere else, you can always get jobs up here."

This fall, he has been a substitute teacher and has prepared for another AFL tryout. Would he have had a different major without football's time demands?

"If I had all the time of a regular student, I would have tried to make the most of my education and get a degree that gave me a skill. I know if I were a parent, I wouldn't want all my money going to a degree like liberal arts."

Contributing: Michael McCarthy, A.J. Perez, Erik Brady

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