Game Plan program working in Mississippi

There have been many misperceptions about what the Cellular South Game Plan is all about, so we decided to ask some tough questions to their marketing director, Orien Watson. Learn what he had to say about these issues by reading below.

Explain your role in the Cellular South Gameplan program.

"As the sports marketing manager for Cellular South," added Orien Watson. "one of my main priorities is overseeing the Cellular South Gameplan. Because of that, a lot of my job involves working with our student-athletes in Mississippi to help them understand the NCAA admittance requirements, but also we are trying to erase the perception that our athletes can't meet the NCAA requirements. The Cellular South Gameplan was created because we believe in giving back to the community and this is just one of many programs we do throughout Mississippi. We believe in Mississippi student-athletes and their ability to excel at the next level.

There is a perception that the Gameplan program is designed to help only the Top 40 players in MS. Help clear that issue.

"Working with the top 40 student-athletes in Mississippi is just one part of the larger Gameplan program. The goal is to help ALL student-athletes get on the right path to get into college, and we do that through workshops at high schools, the Cellular South Gameplan DVD we released in January and through the revamped Web site."

"We also realized that in working with the top 40 student-athletes, we would serve a dual purpose, both inspiring other students to strive to meet the NCAA requirements legitimately and serving as an endorsement for what meeting those requirements can do for a student. The great thing about the Cellular South Gameplan is that, while it points students in the right direction to meet entrance requirements, the students themselves need to do the work in the classroom to succeed. That will make an impression on other students.

There is another perception that the Gameplan program is designed just to get the top players qualified by any means, including getting them classified as a LD student.

In any situation it is extremely important to know on a base level what you are dealing with and where each individual stands from a learning standpoint. While not every student-athlete is tested for a learning disability, students' show different proficiency levels academically, and some do need to be tested to see if there is a problem. It is important to know if there is a learning disability so we can take steps to get the kids the help they need. If we are really going to break the poor academic cycle that has trapped a lot of these students, we need answers to these questions.

"It is also important to understand that a learning disorder is not a "disability." In many cases, students face challenges that they are afraid to admit to. Someone who has an apparent difficulty in reading letters in the correct order may only need extra time to read a sentence, along with drills and exercises that can help improve the condition.

Also, people need to understand that the NCAA requirements do not change, and the core requirements - GPA and ACT/SAT scores - must still be met, regardless of whether there is a disorder. Moreover, once a disorder is identified in most cases, a student's behavior often makes a dramatic improvement. It's like the proverbial lion with the thorn in his paw. Lashing out or acting out is a way to avoid the problem and distract others from realizing that there is a serious issue. Remove the fear, diffuse the fight."

Take us through the process of a kid who is shy with his core and ACT/SAT test. Give us an example on how you would direct him to achieve his goal of becoming a qualifier.

"If a student-athlete is shy in his or her core credits, we first identify in which subject areas the athlete lacks the most credits. The NCAA requires all student-athletes beyond 2008 to acquire 16 units - 4 English, 3 Math (algebra 1 or above), 2 Social Sciences, 2 Sciences, 1 additional Math, Science, or English and 4 additional core courses from any academic area. After we identify in which area the student needs the most work, we begin weighing the options. Immediately we look to the school. Some schools do not have the funding to offer summer school or courses during the winter.

If the school is not an option, we investigate accredited online programs that offer high school credit unit courses. Ironically, a major issue that we encounter is a lack of updating the 48-h form, which identifies which subject courses have been approved by the NCAA for acceptance toward initial eligibility. Each school is accountable for updating these forms by submitting courses to the NCAA to be added and requesting that students receive advanced quality points for taking advanced and AP courses. The NCAA shows the last recorded update to the 48-h forms online. To our dismay, many of these forms have not been updated in years. Our goal is for each high school to update their 48-h forms yearly to allow students to take all necessary courses at their institution."

Have you started working with the student-athletes who are not rising seniors? If so, explain that process.

"Yes, our goal is to reach students in middle school to start their thought process about college at an early stage in their academic career. We provide three ways to begin integration into the Cellular South Gameplan through our educational workshops, Gameplan DVD workshop and Gameplan Web site (

Our workshops explain to early high school athletes the essence of our program - concentration on beginning early by taking the ACT each time it is offered, why earning A's and B's is important, how to calculate GPA's and how to determine which courses are needed to satisfy the NCAA Division 1 requirements. In many cases, student-athletes have no idea that the NCAA requires them to meet these standards, and early enlightenment is just as important as the intervention."

Where do the graduating seniors stand right now, academically?

"We are pleased with the student-athletes of our 2008 class and their progress. After a year of course work, we are a little ahead of our projections for students achieving NCAA eligibility requirements and several others who are on target to meet these requirements over the summer. In the fall, we will have a better idea of how many students-athletes have met the requirements, and we'll be able to discuss more specific numbers for all student-athletes in the program."

Where do the rising seniors stand right now, academically, compared to where the rising seniors stood last year, when you had just started the program?

"In working with many of these athletes, educators have seen increases in their in-class performance. That's our goal - getting these students to understand that there is no "easy way" into a collegiate program. These athletes have to put in the work and understand how to take advantage of their opportunities.

Last year, approximately 65% of the athletes had not taken the ACT, and this year, more than 75% have already successfully attempted the ACT. Last year, 57% had core GPA's that met minimum requirements, and this year, more than 80% have core GPA's that meet or exceed the NCAA's minimum requirement for core GPA. Many of these athletes have shown dramatic improvement in class by the end of the semester year. Also, last year, 43% of the athletes needed more than five (5) academic units to meet the 16 core requirements, and this year, only 25% need five or more courses by year's end to meet the requirements."

What are your goals for all of the classifications?

"The ultimate goal is to begin communicating to student-athletes in middle school the importance of taking advantage of the academic side of athletics before they get to high school. This will really go a long way toward getting more Mississippi student-athletes ready to accept a scholarship when it's offered and will help change the perception that Mississippi has a lot of talented athletes that can't meet the requirements for college.

Does it disturb the people who work to improve education in Mississippi to face such criticism for a worthy project?

"At times it is discouraging, but we are trying to open the doors for our Mississippi athletes in hopes of changing negative perceptions about their quality academically. In all honesty, we want to erase the perceptions that our kids aren't worth recruiting because they can't make it in Division 1 programs. We want to provide the assistance necessary to help these athletes get qualified in the right way. There is no greater way to change our futures than by helping our youth, and the ultimate vision is to prove that Mississippi has some of the brightest and smartest athletes in the nation.

A major part of this issue is found within our high school grading scales. All of our Mississippi students, athletes and non-athletes, are at a disadvantage. Especially when competing for high dollar scholarships with neighboring states offer 10-point grading scales. For example, a student who would have earned a C in Mississippi with an 80 is awarded a B.

Consider the Mississippi student that graduates with a 3.0 and the student who receives a 4.0 in a neighboring state with identical Grade scores. The field is not even here. Who would you suppose is awarded the academic scholarship? The grades earned were no different; however the scales in which they were graded were.

This is not about just helping high-profile athletes earn eligibility status; we are trying to move all of Mississippi out of the bottom tier of our nation's perception. We hope that what we are doing will change history and level the playing field for all student-athletes in Mississippi. What we ultimately want is to change the way America views us and the way we view ourselves."

Cellular South Gameplan only focuses on student-athletes. What about other students in Mississippi?

"Actually, Cellular South has always been focused on education, and for several years has funded an academic scholarship program that is spread out across all eight public universities in Mississippi. That program makes college a reality for students who otherwise might not have had the chance to attend. The Cellular South Gameplan is just a part of Cellular South's overall commitment to education in Mississippi. "

Thank you Mr. Orien Watson and everyone involved with the Cellular South Game Plan Program for helping change the culture around Mississippi student athletes.

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