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Putting the 'student' back in 'student athlete' at College Park

Collegiate sports are filled with statistics, some meaningful, some not. One worth watching is a school's Academic Progress Rate. Compiled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association it is based on the number of team members who stay enrolled and academically eligible. In short, it measures the athletes progress toward graduation.

Lately these numbers for University of Maryland football players have been sorry — the team's academic progress rate has dropped for five years in a row. In the Atlantic Coast Conference rankings, the Terps are almost in the cellar in this category, trailing only Florida State University. In addition to being embarrassing, this poor performance, if continued, could cost the team scholarships if the NCAA so rules.

Rightly, Maryland's new athletic director, Kevin Anderson, has expressed concern over the downfall. He told The Sun's Jeff Barker, who reported the slide, that at least one staff member will be added to the academic support team. That is a good first step. Practice and travel make heavy demands on the schedules of student athletes, and the university, in turn, should provide adequate counseling for players who need it. In addition there have to be institutional commitments from coaches and administrators to the players academic success. Improving the graduation rates — a different but related academic measure — of so-called "individual admit" athletes who don't meet the general admission criteria of the student body is another area that needs work.

But when it comes to prioritizing athletics and academics, it would be easy for coaches to come to the conclusion that their universities are much more interested in them excelling in the former than the latter.

Some schools , including Maryland have put clauses in contracts that offer their coaches financial rewards when players achieve academic goals. But these incentives are paltry when compared to those garnered by coaches for success on the field. Maryland's outgoing football coach, Ralph Friedgen, received a $110,250 bonus in 2007 when his 2006 team achieved a graduation rate of 71 percent, according to Bloomberg News. At the same time, however, he was eligible for a bonus of up to $347,288 for on-the field achievements.

This disparity between incentives for doing well in the classroom and on the field is a part of a national pattern. Auburn football coach Gene Chizik this year picked up an additional $1.1 million in bonuses for his team's success on the field this year, topped by winning the national championship. If his team members were to pull off a similar stellar accomplishment in the classroom — achieving a perfect Academic Progress Rate score of 1,000 — his reward would be just $150,000. Since the Auburn football score for 2008-2009 was 915, trailing even Maryland's score of 929, it seems unlikely that the academic progress check will be written.

Mr. Anderson declined to say whether the academic slide on the football team played a role in the decision to fire Mr. Friedgen, and chances are, it was at most an afterthought compared to the empty seats at the stadium in the coach's waning years. But it is heartening at least that Mr. Friedgen's replacement , Randy Edsall, comes to College Park from the University of Connecticut, where his players posted an ASR of 949, well above average for public schools.

The public needs to hold Mr. Anderson Mr. Edsall accountable for replicating that success here. The team has a new leader and a new start, and its achievements next year need to be measured not just on what bowl game it plays in but in how well it achieves the central purpose of an academic institution.

Collegiate football is certainly a big business, and the notion of student athletes may seem quaint in an era of multi-million dollar sponsorships and TV contracts. But we should remember that the athletes themselves are the only ones not getting paid in the bargain, and very few of them will get the ultimate payoff of a professional career. The football players bring prestige to the university, and they pay the way for much of the rest of the athletic department. The least we can do in exchange is to make sure they actually get an education.


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