PITTSBURGH — In front of nearly 16,000 fans at Consol Energy Center and millions more watching across the country Thursday afternoon, Butler University forward Andrew Chrabascz hammered away against the towering big men from the University of Texas and helped his Bulldogs sneak away with a 56-48 win.
A day earlier, in a large conference room at the Wyndham Grand hotel, with only Butler coordinator for academic support Sonya Hopkins looking on, Chrabascz completed his third exam since the team arrived in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Chrabascz, a sophomore majoring in marketing, took a macroeconomics test Tuesday afternoon, studied women’s rights later that night, woke up Wednesday morning to take that test before breakfast and then later finished his brainy trifecta with a test of his business statistics acumen.
“I got it done,” Chrabascz said with a chuckle. “It wasn’t that bad.”
If the National Collegiate Athletic Association could paint a picture of its ideal “student-athlete,” Chrabascz’s performance during this week’s NCAA tournament would suffice quite well. But that image — of the big-time college basketball player who is just as much a student as an athlete — is getting harder and harder to accept with the notion of amateurism under attack in courtrooms and increasingly in the court of public opinion.
Still, administrators such as Hopkins, who has permission from the university to proctor the exams when the team is traveling, try to keep fighting the good fight each day. She has been doing this for eight years, and with academic scandals erupting at formerly well-respected programs such as North Carolina and Syracuse in the past few years, she tries to do things right so that the institutions who are behaving badly don’t ruin it for everybody else.
“Academic fraud is a scary thing,” Hopkins said.
Many academic support staff members around the country are not allowed to proctor exams to the athletes because the university faculty members are not willing to put trust in those working under the athletic department umbrella. The fear — backed up by the revelations that fake classes were created systematically for athletes at North Carolina and that basketball staff members at Syracuse conspired to get a basketball player’s grade changed — is that the thrills of wins like the one Butler picked up on Thursday have become so lucrative that they could come at the cost of the school’s integrity.
Erica Lavender, Louisiana State University’s associate director for academic affairs, traveled with the Tigers to Pittsburgh this week. LSU does not allow her to proctor any exams, though.
“The thing that we are battling the most is perception of student-athletes and the type of education they get,” Lavender said. “That’s a battle we face every day.
“The first thing out of people’s mouths when I say I travel with the men’s basketball team and do academic advising is ‘Oh, you keep them eligible.’ No, I don’t. You can ask any of my kids. I will let them fail a class before I give them an easy way out. I’ve had kids fail classes.”
Notre Dame, which squeaked out a 69-65 win over Northeastern University Thursday, has experienced first-hand the academic tap dance that goes on in Division I basketball.
Jerian Grant, a fifth-year senior and the Fighting Irish’s star player, scored 17 points to lead Notre Dame Thursday. A year ago at this time, he wasn’t even a part of the program because he had been dismissed from the school because of an academic matter. Grant applied to be readmitted as any other dismissed student at Notre Dame would have to do, according to Notre Dame director of academic services Pat Holmes, and was accepted.
“It is tough,” said Grant, who is expected to be drafted by an NBA franchise after the season. “We have a great academic staff that helps us out. We definitely have time to get into the books.”
To Holmes, Grant’s situation shows that the “rules are consistent” for all Notre Dame students. Because Holmes works for the university and not the athletic department, he is allowed to proctor exams for the players.
“It’s a check and balance that you build,” Holmes said.
Last week, Holmes has been busy. Notre Dame had study hall until 10:30 Tuesday night, and players had to wake up at 5 a.m. Wednesday to register for summer classes. He said he was scheduled to give one player two exams on Thursday after the game that he would FedEx back to their South Bend, Indiana, campus.
“We promise them an education,” Holmes said. “Their compensation for their ability to play a sport at a high level is the ability to get a degree.”
But, he acknowledged, “When you’re playing at a level like this, there are going to be challenges.”
Lafayette University, a No. 16 seed from Easton, Pa., is certainly not playing at the same level as Notre Dame. The Leopards were on spring break this week, but Lafayette sports information director Philip LaBella said that when they hosted the Patriot League championship game March 11 the team’s starting five had the following classes that morning: “The Age of Revolution,” “Financial Accounting & Reporting,” “Molecular Genetics,” “Industrial Organization” and “Law & Economics.”
At the University of Texas, which like Notre Dame lives on an opposite pole from Lafayette, the Longhorns happily boast that they have had a perfect Academic Progress Rating (APR, the metric the NCAA came up with to measure how well programs are graduating their players) since 2007.
Texas coach Rick Barnes recalled that when the Longhorns lost one of their talented players to academic ineligibility in 2005 he went to his athletic director, then DeLoss Dodds, and said it couldn’t happen again. According to Barnes, it hasn’t.
“Nothing is more important than the integrity of the University of Texas,” Barnes said. “If you look at our compliance office now, you would think we had a satellite NCAA office on our campus. If our academic adviser tells me a guy needs to be in study hall, we’ve got guys who have missed practice.”
During periods like this — most schools have gone right from their conference tournament last week to the NCAA tournament this week — it just comes down to planning. And, of course, some schools make it easier for their athletes than others.
LSU’s players, when they return to Baton Rouge, La., will all have to cram for early week makeup exams and scramble to find notes from classmates. Butler’s players will have taken their exams and quizzes in Pittsburgh and have the opportunity to request recordings of missed classes.
“I’m just thankful that our athletic department has earned enough respect that our professors trust us,” Hopkins said. “And I’m glad the hotel has a scanner.”