Athlete tutoring is not just a problem at Florida State


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Nov 17, 2003
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The urban swamp

Athlete tutoring is not just a problem at Florida State
Schools across the country run the risks of tutors bending the rules to better athletes' grade-point averages.

Josh Robbins | Sentinel Staff Writer
February 19, 2008

Before the 2006-07 school year, Florida State's academic support office for student-athletes issued a 31-page handbook to its tutors. Its first sentence read, "Welcome to the Athletic Academic Support Program, winner of the 1996 Athletic Management Magazine 'Award of Excellence' for having the best academic support program in the country!"

The handbook, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel through state public-records laws, spelled out the department's regulations. Compliance officials even met with tutors to discuss NCAA rules.

Infractions happened anyway, an FSU report to the NCAA shows. Brenda Monk, the department's assistant director, supplied the answers to online exams, asked one athlete to complete an online exam for another athlete and typed papers for athletes. Also, a tutor shouted out answers as athletes took online exams.

Monk and the tutor told university officials that they acted on their own. But to some observers of college sports, the infractions at FSU are symptomatic of a larger nationwide problem. The critics argue that the NCAA and its member schools perpetuate an academic support culture centered on keeping athletes eligible that inherently leads to bending the rules.

"In a system where gaining a competitive edge is so important to coaches being able to maintain their jobs, these kinds of shortcuts are things that become more available as an option," said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management and media at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and a former athletic director at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

"I don't want to suggest that there are bad people working in the system. I think that the system has so many flaws that it becomes very difficult not to cut corners on a variety of things."

Staurowsky has labeled academic support programs as another "cottage industry" with college sports, and at FSU, the department has a budget this year of just more than $1 million.

In the late 1960s, FSU had just one academic counselor for student-athletes, and that counselor at the time was the school's current president, T.K. Wetherell.

In 1975, when the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A) held its first national convention, just 15 people took part. Now, the organization has around 950 members.

NCAA requires tutoring

NCAA Bylaw requires all Division I schools to make "general academic counseling and tutoring services" available to all student-athletes. At the end of the 2006-07 school year, the NCAA distributed $19.8 million out of its Academic Enhancement Fund to its Division I members -- $60,000 to each school -- for academic support programs.

Florida State started the 2006-07 school year with nine full-time staff members in its Athletic Academic Support Services (AASS) program and would employ approximately 57 tutors that spring. AASS is housed in the second floor of the Moore Athletic Center, and has a 32-station computer lab, 10 private tutorial rooms, the use of two 50-seat classrooms and a five-station learning center for athletes with learning deficiencies or disabilities.

Those amenities and the department itself were described in detail over two pages in FSU's 2007 football media guide. The write-up noted that 14 Seminoles recently had been named district academic All-Americans and that 204 FSU student-athletes made the Atlantic Coast Conference's 2007 honor roll. In addition, the team grade-point average during the Spring 2007 semester was 2.80.

Wetherell has since called AASS a "paper tiger," a group not nearly as successful as its honors would indicate.

"The academic support program has won all kinds of awards," Wetherell said. "And so you're sitting there saying on paper, how did this [academic fraud] thing happen? But then you start looking and you realize it's a paper tiger. There was a lot of paper tigers over there."

About 60 FSU student-athletes received or will receive some form of suspension. In addition, the school put its teams on probation for two years, while some teams will lose scholarships. The NCAA may add further sanctions.

FSU isn't alone in promoting its academic support program to gain an edge in recruiting. Schools within the Sunshine State -- including Florida, Miami, UCF and USF -- devoted at least one page in their 2007 football media guides to their own academic support services.

Florida's program, within the Office of Student Life, has an annual budget of about $1.5 million to $1.7 million including salaries, said Keith Carodine, the school's associate athletic director for academic affairs. UCF's program, the office of Academic Services for Student-Athletes, has a budget of about $700,000, said its director, Mark Gumble.

The current president of the N4A, Phil Hughes, says elaborate academic advising programs for athletes are necessary. Hughes, the associate athletic director for student services at Kansas State, notes that the NCAA requires athletes to have better grades to remain eligible than the general student body needs to stay in school.

"These students are required to dedicate four to five hours per day every day to represent the university in that sport, and then the question is how does that youngster compete successfully in the classroom when all the other students have four to five hours more to study?" Hughes said. "The visibility of the athletes' academic standing is so much greater, and the university has a much greater investment than they do with the other students. If any other student decides to flunk out of 'University X,' no one [in the media] cares."

Critics call for reform

B. David Ridpath doesn't buy Hughes' argument. Ridpath is a professor in sports administration at Ohio University and serves as the executive director of The Drake Group, a collection of college educators that lobbies for NCAA reforms. He also once worked at Marshall University as its assistant athletic director for compliance and student services.

He calls academic support departments "academic eligibility centers" and wants departments nationwide to report to their schools' academic administrations instead of their athletic departments.

"There's pressure on those academic advisors to the point where your job rests on whether this kid is academically eligible," Ridpath said. "I've seen some of the best succumb to the pressure."

The N4A doesn't advocate any specific reporting structure. Some schools' academic support departments report to their athletic directors. Others report to an academic dean. Others have a dual reporting relationship.

Mark Meleney, the former director of FSU's academic support program whose contract was not renewed because of the scandal, reported directly to the school's dean of undergraduate studies. But the funding for his department comes out of the athletic department budget.

The director of University of Florida's Office of Student Life (OSL) reports directly to Athletic Director Jeremy Foley and also reports indirectly to the school's provost, Janie Fouke. Tutors must have a faculty recommendation and good grades to be hired, and athletes complete surveys on tutors' conduct each semester. At night, OSL's full-time staff members and graduate interns go from room to room and observe tutoring sessions.

At UCF, the office of Academic Services for Student-Athletes (ASSA) reports directly to the school's associate vice president for academic development and retention, Mark Allen Poisel.

ASSA hires undergraduates and graduate students to serve as tutors, typically at rates between $7.50 and $11 per hour, Gumble said. Tutors must have received an 'A' or 'B' in the course, and those tutors receive regular evaluations from athletic academic advisers and athletes.

There are other rules, too. ASSA employees and tutors are not allowed to even hold a pen or a pencil when they work with athletes on papers.

"We are always talking about NCAA rules each time we're meeting" with the tutors, Gumble said. "We're not going to keep a risk of having someone who's not doing the right thing."

Yet even Hughes, the president of the N4A, acknowledges that there's no defense for a rogue tutor.

"Whatever the best practices," Hughes said, "there is no foolproof system that can prevent a tutor doing something wrong after hours, on a weekend, outside of our program.

"If you're going to offer tutoring programs to athletes, unless it's by robot, you have inherent risks that you have to understand and manage to the best of your responsibility."