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He Shoots, He Scores, He Studies.

As the NCAA Finally Gets Serious About Educating College Athletes, Schools Would Be Wise to Follow the Example Set by UC Berkeley--Even if Its Program Was Inspired by a Series of Scandals.

September 05, 2004|Stephen L. Cohen | Stephen L. Cohen is a physician and freelance writer based in New York City. Researcher Jessica Gelt contributed to this story.

In the rarefied world of academia, the spotlight seldom strays from learned argument to scholarly deceit. Scams, after all, are more the province of Enron and Worldcom than Harvard and Yale. But sometimes a sham does occur even in the august precincts of the academy--especially when money creeps into the shadows. Money may not be the source of all evil, but it has a nasty habit of hanging around the con.

And there is big money in college sports. Basketball and football, which has just kicked off its 2004 season, account for billions of dollars in revenue for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. The NCAA is in the middle of an 11-year, $62-billion television deal for its basketball championship tournament. The bounty from 28 football bowl games kicks in an additional $184 million-and-change annually. And then there's the NCAA's new 11-year sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola--covering 87 championships in 22 sports--worth a half a billion dollars.

Not bad for amateur athletes.

The problem is that those enormous sums--and the pressures they create--are reshaping the landscape of college sports and having an insidious effect on the academic mission of universities across the country. And the last couple of years have produced some memorable shams.

At St. Bonaventure in 2003, the basketball coach, athletic director and university president lost their jobs because a player was admitted to the school without the required academic credentials; this year, at the University of Georgia, assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr. was fired because of alleged academic fraud; and at Fresno State, a former team statistician revealed that he was paid to write term papers for three basketball players under previous coach Jerry Tarkanian.

But the last year was notable for more than just scandal and excess. Indeed, this was the year the NCAA and its member schools finally agreed to make the words "student-athlete" mean something--a huge achievement in an era in which high-revenue, high-stakes college sports have turned their amateur participants into year-round, full-time athletes.

The NCAA reforms, approved in April, will impose an escalating series of penalties--with real financial costs--on universities that do not meet certain academic standards, including minimum graduation rates. According to NCAA president Myles Brand, the measures are the strongest ever passed by the NCAA, holding not only athletes, but also teams and institutions, accountable for academic achievement.

Are they workable? Is it possible that athletes who were poor students in high school can learn to be good students in college? Can coaches and college administrators hold star athletes accountable academically and create a system that spots problems before they lead to academic fraud?

The answers may lie in the pioneering efforts of one famous university, whose reputation is built more on astrophysics than Astro-Turf.

In the world of college football, USC, Oklahoma, Florida State and other perennial powers are household names. UC Berkeley is not. Its football team is best known for a Keystone Cops-like kickoff return that eked out a victory against Stanford in 1982. Its basketball team, meanwhile, is noteworthy for attracting gifted players such as Jason Kidd and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, only to see them abandon school early for NBA riches.

But in the last two years, Berkeley ranked in the top 10 among the more than 300 Division I schools in the Sports Academy Directors' Cup standings, which gauge a university's overall athletic success. (Division I schools must meet certain criteria relating to number of sports, attendance and financial aid offered.)

There has never been any doubt about Cal's academic prowess. According to the National Research Council's 1995 study (conducted only every 10 years), no other university has as many graduate programs ranked in the top 10 in their fields. The school's academic departments consistently rank among the top five in the country.

And when it comes to performance in both academics and sports, few schools are in the same league. Berkeley's graduation rate for its student-athletes has been as much as 11 points higher than the average for all Division I schools. Last year almost half of Cal student-athletes had cumulative grade point averages above 3.0--no small achievement given the school's rigorous academic demands.

And then there are the athletic demands: Division I athletes, who compete at the highest levels, sometimes put in akin to a 40-hour-plus workweek. Although NCAA rules limit formal training to 20 hours a week, loopholes allow other activities to take place.

According to University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer, a former member of the NCAA executive committee, when it comes to balancing athletics and academics, "Cal is the best public school in the country."

However, Berkeley was, until recently, a noted underachiever in this regard. Worse still, it was known for cheating.

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