McCray Obviously Forgot The Student Part of It

Chris McCray
Maryland guard Chris McCray has nobody to blame but himself for becoming academically ineligible. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Twenty years or more ago when a kid couldn't make the grades to remain eligible to play college football or basketball, the school was often to blame. Not always but all too often, the coach had no idea whether his player went to classes or attempted to do the work necessary to earn decent grades. Study hall was optional, a joke at some schools.

There was rarely if ever anyone working with students on class selection, on scheduling, on helping a kid prepare for midterms or finals. And it was easy to get the impression that the school didn't much give a damn, that when the kid's eligibility was exhausted, it was thanks and good riddance.

Back then, Chris McCray, ruled ineligible to play basketball at Maryland for the final semester of his college career, might have had a pretty good excuse: that the help he needed wasn't available.

But it's available now, and McCray has only himself to blame. Academic support is everywhere a student-athlete turns at most big schools, nearly unavoidable, and that certainly includes Maryland. In fact, the embarrassingly poor performance of some Maryland athletes in the mid-1980s, right around the time of the death of Len Bias, led to the pressure that forced Maryland to be one of the leaders in academic reform as it relates to scholarship athletes.

You know what the University of Maryland spends annually on its Academic Support and Career Development Unit? Approximately $1.2 million. That unit employs 14 full-time staffers and two graduate assistants with the sole purpose of helping students work toward earning not only a degree, but an actual formal college education.

They help formulate a kid's schedule. They meet with students at least once every other week and often more frequently. They send out progress reports. They set up tutoring. Sometimes, they do the actual tutoring. In case you think it's tough to find them, it isn't. There's a suite inside Comcast Center, where many of the kids go every day or most days. And there's another academic support center inside the football team house.

Schools use these facilities as recruiting tools now. Maryland moved its venue from the basement of Cole Field House to its two newest, shiniest buildings on campus.

A former Division I athlete who graduated from an ACC school last May said: "Pretty much all of us have academic advisers, then an additional adviser from the athletic department on top of that. . . . The system is pretty tight. I know there are kids who get homesick or depressed . . . it happens. But besides those exceptions, if you're ineligible now, it's probably because you just didn't want to do much of anything."

Chris McCray wasn't homesick because he lives, essentially, down the street. Every program, no matter how good the school, takes on some academically challenged kids. But McCray isn't one of those. He's a bright, capable kid. It looks, from all indications, like he is afflicted mostly by what afflicts way too many kids, more specifically way too many African American kids.

He wanted to play basketball.

And while doing all he could to pursue that dream, he treated school as an option.

You think McCray is the exception? No, he's closer to the rule.

Don't get me wrong: The business of basketball might present greater opportunity to black men than any industry in this country. Having covered basketball for a living for years for this newspaper, I know the attraction, or should I say the obsession. It's cultural consumption for a pretty huge subculture. But the fact that the culture promotes participation to the exclusion of everything else, starting with studying, is so dangerous.

McCray found out the hard way. And contrary to what a lot of folks are saying -- even his loving mom -- it's his fault. Shirleeta McCray who understandably takes up for her son, was quoted yesterday as saying, "I'm not only going to fault Chris; I'm going to fault everyone up there."

We all understand a mother wanting to protect her son. But the rest of us had better be asking what responsibility Chris McCray has at this point. From all indications, he was told weeks ago about his status and how perilously close to flunking off the team he was. It's been rumored around campus and then around town for days that McCray was going to be ruled ineligible. Students enrolled in his classes have reported that he hasn't been in attendance.

He was told by staffers on the academic support unit he needed to go to class. How much more monitoring are the folks at Maryland supposed to do? How much more hand-holding should there be? I don't want to hear that this is Coach Gary Williams's fault, or Athletic Director Debbie Yow's fault. They're supposed to take more responsibility than McCray himself?

McCray isn't a freshman. He's a senior. He's been a co-captain for two seasons. And now he's let down his team tremendously. Maryland's men's basketball team needs every resource at its disposal to win enough games to make the NCAA tournament and avoid being shut out for a second straight year.

This ought to be an exciting time in McCray's life, a time for trying to lead a team, for trying to find out if all his hard work in gymnasiums will lead to a career in professional basketball.

But the deal was, to pursue those dreams, he had to meet some standards -- standards that some would call minimal. And because he didn't, despite more than enough intellect and assistance, he's gone, and it's nobody's fault but his.

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