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Trying to Balance Student and Athlete

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.

A recent survey of 114 colleges conducted by the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics found that the average major-conference school has seven full-time employees, seven part-time employees and 42 additional tutors.

"There was a time when athletes could come to school, and class would kind of be the side job," said Roger Grooters, the executive director of LSU's academic center for athletes. "Now we're dealing with a much, much more demanding situation."

Admitting freshman athletes to college now is easier thanks to the Initial Eligibility Index, a sliding scale that approves a student who scored a 400 on the SAT if his high school grade-point average was 3.55 or better; maintaining eligibility while in college now is harder because athletes must complete 40 percent of their credits toward graduation in a major by the end of sophomore year.

"They've got too much at stake now for us to not be accountable," LSU basketball coach John Brady said. "With the APR, I'm sure academics are something more coaches have to be concerned about. In this day and age, if a head coach is not involved or supportive with academics, your whole operation is not going to work."

Said Florida Coach Billy Donovan: "There are no excuses anymore. You absolutely have to keep up with your class work."

Under that directive, Davis, the 308-pound LSU center and the SEC player of the year, carried his backpack into the conference room of the Hyatt Regency at about 8:30 p.m. Friday.

The Tigers used the same room for all team gatherings, so pots of leftover food sat on tables and a makeshift three-point and foul line had been taped to the carpet. Davis settled at a table with Timmer and pulled out a 23-question, take-home math quiz. "This is nothing," he said.

During the next five minutes, Davis's cellphone rang three times: his girlfriend once, then a high school buddy impressed by Davis's 22 points and 13 rebounds the night before against Iona and finally a friend relaying the score of a game between Connecticut and Albany.

"The kids are there to win and play basketball, so academics are going to take a back seat," said David Ridpatch, executive director of the Drake Group, which advocates academic integrity in college athletics. "We might put up a facade of real academics at the NCAA tournament. But at that level, I'm not sure it's really happening."

Four of Davis's teammates filtered into study hall during the next hour, and each brought another distraction. Rolle showed off a picture of an attractive female student who messaged him on Facebook.com. A team manager passed around a basketball sitting in the room. Johnson, a freshman center, opened a bag of Doritos.

"Hey man, give me one of them Doritos," Davis said.

"No way," Johnson said. "You called me bi-otch earlier today."

"Come on. Give me a Dorito, bi-otch."

"Fine," Johnson said, handing over a chip, "but now I get to call you bi-otch, bi-otch."

Timmer, cheerful and popular among the players, watched the exchange and smiled sheepishly. She had long been aware of the imperfections of this study hall setup. Individual sessions would likely be more productive, Timmer said, but time constraints made those impossible. She felt generally content to be involved and helping with the trip at all. Some teams managed with less.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which advanced to the second round, came to the tournament without an academic representative. Florida, playing in the round of 16, had an adviser come only for part of the first two rounds because the school was on spring break.

"Most basketball teams have somebody that travels with them, but there's really no recommended way to do it," said Sandy Meyer, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes. "It's virtually impossible to have any meaningful study time during the NCAA tournament. It's too much to expect a college student to juggle."

Seven questions into his math test, Davis asked Timmer if he could give up. The material consisted mainly of calculating down payments and mortgage rates when buying a house, and Davis said it would usually be a breeze. But the night before an NCAA tournament game, his every thought -- no matter where it started -- landed back on basketball. He read half of the test's eighth question, which detailed a scenario involving a housing loan. Then he stopped abruptly and let his mind wander.

"You know, I'm actually trying to get into real estate right now," Davis said. "You've got to get into real estate, no matter how much you make or what profession you're in.

"Hopefully I'll make the NBA. I don't think I'm good enough, though. I don't get the same publicity as like Shelden Williams and those other guys, 'cause I don't jump like them. Maybe if we win another couple of games in the tournament, they'll start talking about me. Man, just a couple more wins . . . "

Davis glanced briefly back at his test, then pushed it aside.

"All I know," he said, "is I'm getting out of here."

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