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Tufts student-athletes: 'dumb jocks' or smarter than the rest?

Daily Editorial Board, Daily Editorial Board

Published: Friday, September 1, 2000

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 16:08

Question: Who has the higher grade point average, your typical Tufts student, or your typical Tufts student-athlete?

Answer: probably neither. While a study that the Athletic Department conducted on last year's student-athletes revealed that student athletes may have an average GPA .05 higher than the average Tufts student, statistically, there is virtually no difference. And that's just the way the Athletic Department wants it.

"At an institution like Tufts, or any Div. III school, there should be no difference between student athletes and the general student body," Athletic Director Bill Gehling said. "Athletes are treated no differently academically than students. There is no special academic help that you would find at the Div. I level."

Gehling, who started the study of student-athlete GPA's when he took over as Athletic Director two years ago, has only one year's worth of numbers to compare, but he feels that this year's results are going to be roughly the same.

On the surface, everything in the land of student-athletics seems just rosy. But when you dig a little deeper, this great equality starts to erode just a bit and slight disparities emerge.

That's not to say that Tufts doesn't have a great tradition of academic achievement from its athletes. In fact, even more impressive is that the majority of athletes recognized academically are stars on their team.

Last winter, Paul Smith and Fred Pedroletti were honored on the All-NESCAC Academic team, and both started on the men's basketball team that won the ECAC Tournament. Drew Carleton and Scott Sullivan received the same honor and were the two leading scorers on the hockey team. Jack Levner, Nic Anderson, Lisa Bologna, Lisa Vernoy, Omar Malik, Zaina Al-Awadi, and Anne Montesamo gained similar recognition, and all were either captains or major contributors to the men's and women's swimming and squash teams.

Shira Fishman and Molly Baker, basketball team captains each of the last two years, were also awarded All-NESCAC academic honors, but they were not alone on the women's basketball team. Last year's squad was ranked 24th in the nation amongst Div. III teams in GPA, and first in the NESCAC.

The list goes on, with names like Zach Brown (ace pitcher on the baseball team), Randee McArdle (catcher and goalie for the softball and soccer teams respectively), and Cindy Manning (All-American runner) receiving College Academic All-District honors.

So what is it about athletes that make them excel academically? More to the point, why do some of the best players excel the most in the classroom?

"Most of the student-athletes here are goal-oriented," Gehling said. "They are used to balancing things. If you were successful in high school and still managed to excel athletically, you need time management skills."

So it appears that the roughly 15-25 hours per week that athletes spend practicing and training for their sport actually work as a positive motivational tool to excel in the classroom, rather than a hindrance on their studies.

"The anecdotal evidence that I've collected over the years is that my soccer players did better during the soccer season than during the spring," said Gehling, who coached the women's soccer team before becoming Athletic Director.

Not only are the athletes managing their time better when they get to campus, but the coaches are forced to recruit more academically astute students than most schools.

"One of the first things I look for is somebody I know will get into the school," said women's basketball coach Janice Savitz. "I don't want someone who will be a reach. I hope for my players to have academic prowess as well as athletic talent."

One look at the women's basketball team, though, makes you start wondering about one of the disparities that may exist in the GPA study that the Athletic Department is conducting. Do women's sports carry the overall GPA of the entire study?

According to Gehling, not really. There is a marginal difference, less than .05, between the GPA of male and female athletes. Further, the overall average is for females to have a higher GPA, so proportionally, male and female athletes are the same distance above average for their gender.

But there is evidence to the contrary. The women's basketball team was ranked 24th in the nation academically last season, while two years ago the women's soccer team was ranked 7th. Their male counterparts went unranked.

Further evidence, though slight, comes from Jim Watson, who coaches both the men and women's tennis teams.

"Any academic problems that my players have had (three in 20 years - a very small number) have come with men," Watson said, though he is quick to point out that there is not a huge discrepancy. "Both men and women are equally involved in academics. They are all high achievers."

A look at the tennis team leads to another question concerning the validity of the GPA study. Do some teams that are stereotypically strong academically, like tennis, carry the weight for teams that are less highly regarded as academic?

The answer is tough to come by, as Gehling did not feel comfortable disclosing the GPA's of each individual team, claiming it does not give a good, statistical representation.

"A snapshot of 15 people could be misleading," Gehling explained. He also said that since the study is only one year into its progression, it is tough to tell which teams would be at the bottom and which at the top. However, when pressed, he said that as the study progresses ten to 15 years down the road, some clear trends could arise.

"You could say that some teams will end up being higher on the list," Gehling said, though he was hesitant to say which ones.

"There is a correlation between the sport and the academic achievement," Watson said. "The kids that do play tennis here come from high achieving families. It is not cheap to play tennis. By a socio-economic standpoint, it requires one of the wealthiest groups of people. These players are used to excelling, and being pushed to succeed."

There is no hard evidence yet, but as the study is continued through the years, we may start finding greater discrepancy between the athletic teams, between the genders, and between the student body as a whole.

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