Academics Breeds Success in Athletics

At the culmination of each academic year, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics awards the United States Sports Academy Directors Cup (formerly called the Sears Directors Cup) to the top overall athletic program in the country. Points are awarded for success in each of the 33 NCAA-governed sports in which the university achieves a national ranking at the end of the season.

For years, this competition has been dominated by Stanford University, the thirteen-time defending champions. What should be noted, however, is that there is a core group of universities that tend to sit at the top of the rankings every year, all of which are top-30 universities academically as ranked by the 2008 U.S. News & World Report. This group includes Stanford, Duke University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Thus, the question begs to be asked: does success in the classroom translate to success on the playing field for our nation's top young athletes? Recent data seems to suggest that this indeed is the case.

In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) put out its first year's data for their newest academic measurement, the Graduation Success Rate (GSR). According to an NCAA press release, the GSR "improves the federally mandated graduation-rate by including transfer data in the calculation. It was developed in response to college and university presidents who wanted graduation data that more accurately reflect the mobility among students in today's higher education climate."

In the first year of this new study, the NCAA found the national GSR among student-athletes to be 76 percent. However, many of the above-mentioned schools go well above and beyond this national average. Notre Dame, Duke, and Stanford all had GSRs well above 90 percent, while Michigan and UNC both came in at a more-than-respectable 83 percent.

These five schools have found enormous success over the past three Directors Cups. An average of their final rankings over those years comes out to a mean finish of eighth place in the country from a competition that pits over 100 schools against each other. However, there is still much work to be done in what could be considered the "money sports" in college athletics, namely football (GSR of 65%), men's basketball (55%), and baseball (64%), the sports that bring in the vast majority of the revenue to a university's athletic department. These three sports are among the worst in terms of their GSR scores, and all are well below the national average of 76 percent.

While some of this can be attributed to elite athletes leaving their schools early to take their games to the various professional levels, there still is a large disparity between the athletes participating in these popular sports and those playing in relative anonymity in some of the less-publicized sports such as women's lacrosse (94%) and men's water polo (91%).

For Vanderbilt University, a top-20 university and a growing force in athletics on the national stage (the school has improved from 71st in the Directors Cup in 2005 to 33rd in 2007), an increased focus on the "student" aspect of "student-athlete" has corresponded to a meteoric rise up the Cup charts.

No one understands the type of commitment necessary to play a sport at Vanderbilt better than senior Alex Feinberg of the national powerhouse Commodore baseball team. He recently received the Southeastern Conference Scholar-Athlete award, which according to SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, is "the highest honor a student-athlete can receive in the Southeastern Conference."

Feinberg is proud to be a recipient of such a prestigious award, stating that, "as a Vanderbilt baseball player, the dedication we have to show both in the classroom and on the field is huge, and to be recognized for that is an honor."

Feinberg is also active in his community, having this past fall created his own non-profit business venture, Saturday Soldier Battle Bands. These wristbands are similar to the ones made popular by Lance Armstrong and his LIVESTRONG campaign, and football players at 30 major colleges and universities around the country (including Stanford, Ohio State, and Alabama) currently wear Battle Bands in their team colors on the field and around campus.

What distinguishes this business from others is the fact that the profits go directly to two charities that aid the families of soldiers killed in Iraq – the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the Fisher House Foundation. Saturday Soldier Battle Bands are endorsed by nationally recognized stars such as Louisiana State University's Glenn Dorsey, a likely top-five overall pick in next month's NFL Draft.

According to Feinberg, "I thought it would be a good way for me to use my free time and athletic reputation in a positive way. I saw an opportunity for me to make a difference and I made something of it."

In 2003, then-Chancellor Gordon Gee (now President at The Ohio State University) made the bold move of eliminating the university's Athletic Department entirely, instead putting athletics under the supervision of an Academic Vice Chancellor. Says Gee, "the issue always was the need to integrate athletics into the academic culture of the university. Ultimately, the only way to make that happen was to blow up the structure and start afresh. The net result is that we have proven that athletics need not be isolated from the daily activities of the university."

Since the change, as the student-athletes have improved in the classroom, so too have they improved on the playing field.

While this may be far too bold of a move for most NCAA universities, it is important to note that the Vanderbilt administration understand that their main job is to graduate these athletes and prepare them for the real world, because just as the many athletes declare in television commercials for the NCAA, "There are 360,000 NCAA student-athletes, and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports."

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