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Trying to Balance Student and Athlete

A team tutor travels with Magnum Rolle and LSU so they can keep up with their class work.
A team tutor travels with Magnum Rolle and LSU so they can keep up with their class work. "We've got way too much going on up in here," Rolle said. (By Andy Lyons -- Getty Images)

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

JACKSONVILLE, Fla . -- Magnum Rolle fought through two sentences before he threw down his pen and shouted across the third-floor conference room of the Hyatt Regency.

"That's it, man. I can't focus!"

Never before had team study hall offered so many enticing distractions. In 15 hours, Rolle, a freshman forward, would represent Louisiana State on national television in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament, and the anticipation of that event buzzed all around him. At the study table to Rolle's right, LSU center Glen Davis picked up his cellphone and argued with his girlfriend, who criticized his grammar during the afternoon news conference on ESPN. Across the room, freshman Chris Johnson dribbled a basketball on the carpet and recreated the highlights of LSU's first-round win over Iona.

Rolle lounged back in his chair, opened a laptop computer and logged onto Facebook.com, where about a dozen LSU coeds had left him congratulatory messages. "Oh man, I've got to respond to these," Rolle said. His essay for English class on identity theft would have to wait -- even if it was almost a month overdue.

In 2004, the NCAA introduced an academic reform package for student-athletes that its president, Myles Brand, called "the beginning of a sea change in college sports." The centerpiece of that package is the Academic Progress Rate, a statistic that measures a team's ability to retain eligible athletes semester to semester. Teams that routinely fail to meet minimum scores are subject to penalties that could include scholarship reductions.

Many athletic departments responded by devoting additional resources, both human and economic, toward helping their athletes succeed academically. However, by the NCAA's own measuring stick, the early returns have been decidedly mixed. When APR data were released last month, 11 of the 16 teams that remain in the men's basketball tournament posted scores that fell below 925, a cutoff that Brand equated with a 60 percent graduation rate. LSU ranked last among the 16 with an APR of 860.

Athletic and academic success are never more discordant than during college basketball's postseason, college administrators said. Each athlete who plays in the round of 16 this weekend faces the same daunting task Rolle battled in Jacksonville last Friday: keep afloat in classes despite newfound celebrity, intense basketball pressure and recent absences from class totaling up to two weeks of school.

"This is crazy," Rolle said, responding to a team tutor's request that he refocus on his essay. "We've got way too much going on up in here."

Rolle and his teammates had entered study hall with good intentions. Attendance was optional, but academic adviser Jennifer Timmer had called each player's hotel room to recommend a work session. Players had plenty to catch up on because they had missed seven days of school in the last two weeks. They spent three days at the Southeastern Conference tournament and four more in Jacksonville. The Tigers left again Tuesday morning for the round of 16 in Atlanta, where they will play Duke on Thursday night, and they might not return until Sunday.

Even on their day off in between the first and second rounds in Jacksonville, LSU players awoke to a cramped itinerary. They had three hours of practice, an hour of media interviews, mandatory film session and three required team meals. Timmer hoped to cram in a study session between a steakhouse dinner that ended at about 8:30 p.m. and a team snack starting at 10.

"Everyone is really supportive about the concept of getting together to study, but there's so much going on," said Timmer, 26. "During the tournament, it's kind of an uphill battle."

Like most major Division I schools, LSU has invested considerably to support its athletes. The public school in Baton Rouge, La., opened a $15 million academic center for student athletes in 2002, and the cavernous complex includes a 1,000-seat auditorium a 2,800-square-foot library and about 100 computers. A staff of 15 full-time employees helps athletes manage class work, and each incoming freshman athlete is assigned a mentor and tested on study skills and learning methods.


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