The "Future" Is In Question. And The NCAA Has No Answer.

By Michael Spinner

One of my favorite college sports stories dates back to 1997 when I was writing for a college basketball publication. On a major college campus with a world-class basketball program, the intrepid student newspaper decided to conduct an expose into the academic aptitude of its hardwood greats. The game was "trivial pursuit" with a point format similar to what we would find in "Jeopardy" with a point-value system based on difficulty of the questions. The questions dealt with what was supposed to be learned in freshman math and history classes, at first, but quickly changed when the material was found to be too difficult to handle. Some examples:

Knowing that a right angle represented 90 degrees was worth 200 points.

Knowing that the American Civil War was fought between the North and the South was worth 100 points.

Knowing that the Kennedy who reached the White House was "John F." was worth 300 points.

Knowing that Pearl Harbor was in Hawaii was worth the highest value for a question-500 points.

And not one of the above questions was answered correctly. Instead, each member of the full-scholarship squad faltered, replying even to junior high questions the same way Shaquille O'Neal shoots free throws…even when the questions turned to locations on the very campus where were enrolled:

Where on a school map was the campus library located? Brick.

What was the name of one contestant's academic advisor? Brick.

Which classes did one contestant have on Monday? Clang!

"Can I buy a vowel?"

"Not if you don't get drafted."

So what does this all have to do with lacrosse? In the last couple of weeks-everything!

The unfortunate suprise story of the Summer was that Syracuse University standout, Team USA hero, and Tewaaraton Trophy winner, Michael "the future" Powell, would miss the Fall season due to academic troubles. The child and family studies major finished the Spring Semester with a 1.99 GPA, good enough for the NCAA to be academically eligible, but not strong enough for Syracuse University to allow him to compete. This type of thing happens to athletes at most schools every year. And many of the athletes work harder and come back or take some other course and it's not really news. But when it happens to the premier at the top school in lacrosse, the issue is brought to the forefront.

And the chatter began almost immediately. Many worrying about the Orangemen's prospects for the Spring on one website and many others questioning Powell's academic diligence during his first two years at Syracuse on another forum. After all, at many institutions a 1.99 GPA would fall well short of earning a degree, let alone allowing a superstar athlete like Powell to claim the "he's not only a great lacrosse player but a wonderful academic role-model for all others to follow" status that most schools hope to achieve. Let's face it-getting a 1.99 cumulative grade point average does not require a whole heck of a lot beyond attendance of classes. Had the 1.99 been simply for last Spring's semester, it could be understandable because of the time restraints placed on an athlete while in-season…but over two years and all summer and winter sessions, a 1.99 is not good enough.

Powell should by no means be applauded for his academic standing in school, nor should he be admonished, though. Neither should the school. Mike's parents can come down on him if they choose. And the Orange fans will if he doesn't pull out some grades this fall. But we won't. After all, at what point did academics become such a huge priority in the major college sports world that star athletes such as Powell gain an incentive to achieve academically? He obviously works very hard on his game and that can be consuming. Would any school trade 10 or 15 Powell goals for two hundredths of a GPA point? Would Mike?

Six members of the quizbowl dream team referenced above left college before graduation to pursue professional athletics opportunities and are probably making millions of dollars. While such a lofty financial fate does not await Powell at the next level, holding him to academic standards beyond the cultural norm is not warranted and simply unfair. Michael Powell has a 1.99 GPA. How many superstar basketball and football players nationally do much better? After all, if that 1.99 were a 2.0 there would be nothing to report. How many of the elite in lacrosse and other sports are far beyond that mark?

The problem here has nothing to do with Powell or Syracuse. It really starts with the NCAA. A 2.0 GPA is generally nothing to write home about and probably places a student on some sort of probation or warning system for potential failure. 1.99 means below average, not even treading water, and in jeopardy of not earning a degree.

And the passing standard in NCAA terms has little or nothing to do with the difficulty of the course-load involved. If Powell's courses included "advanced calculus", "physics-NASA style", and "Greek for natives of Greece", wouldn't his lower GPA be more understandable? Yet, in order to participate in major college sports, something that takes more time away from academic pursuits than any other conceivable extracurricular activity, one generally has only to achieve the bare minimum GPA along with the accumulation of enough credits. There's no difficulty of topic matter scale. Not only that, but in most cases, falling below this minimal standard does not place an athlete at risk for losing the financial obligations the school has made to the student as long as a passing standard is reached in a reasonable amount of time. It would all seem reasonable. If we weren't talking about institutions of higher learning and the organization they formed to ensure fairness and that academics come first.

For all too long now, the message from the NCAA has not been, "achieve on and off the field," or "athletics just compliment the real goal of a college-education," the message has been, "be mediocre and go to school for free." Can you imagine an athletics department of a school holding its program to the standards the NCAA defines as success academically? Tens of millions of dollars would be spent on the recruitment of athletes who barely are able to compete in their respective sports, coaches would be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars if their teams reach .500 every season, and facilities would be judged as acceptable if the roofs just stay on the buildings. When you think about it, to be successful by NCAA standards, all you have to do is show up for class and turn in the occasional assignment-generally all it takes to get a 2.0. If an athlete put forth this type of effort to sport, they wouldn't be an athlete very long.

Michael Powell is not only an incredible lacrosse player, but is also by all accounts an individual of great character and very intelligent young man. And anybody who has ever met a member of the Syracuse coaching staff will tell you that they are the standard for class and integrity. This is not an issue that Mike Powell or the Syracuse coaching staff should be criticized for. He simply allowed the mediocre standards that encompass big-time college athletics to become a part of his existence…and how can he be blamed?

It is more than likely that Powell will raise his GPA by 0.01 and be eligible to compete this Spring and continue his run as one of the best talents we have ever seen. If he doesn't, we'll all be very disappointed. As far as the NCAA is concerned, if he meets those very minimum standards, he will have achieved as much as the student-athlete who has worked for a 4.0. And there are plenty in the sport of lacrosse. Lacrosse is unique among sports, in that academically elite institutions are among the best athletic schools. The Princeton men are a dynasty. The Princeton women are always among the best and won the National Title in '02. Middlebury Men and Women have won the last three D3 titles, each. Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and Virginia are among the top destinations for D-1 bound blue chip laxers. Perhaps it is not the mandate of the NCAA to hold superstar athletes to the highest academic standards. But an organization that facilitates a profit machine benefiting schools with the highest standards of athletics in the name of "Academics First" and then sets the academic standard below the point that a major sports school sets for their own bread-and-butter mega-star athletes should rethink the master plan.

September 1, 2002

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