“Memorizing someone else’s explanation of the truth isn’t the same as
seeing the truth for yourself. It is what it is—the memorization of
second-hand knowledge. It is not your experience. It is not your
knowledge. And no matter how much material is learned by rote, and no
matter how eloquently we can speak about the memorized information,
we’re clinging to a description of something that’s not ours. What’s
more, the description is never the item itself. By holding onto our
impression of certain descriptions, we frequently are unable to see the
real thing when it’s right before our eyes. We are conditioned by
memorizing and believing concepts—the truth of which we’ve never
genuinely seen for ourselves.”
H.E. Davey (Japanese Yoga: The Way of Dynamic Meditation)
It’s become a punch line, really, the term "student-athlete." College athletics has become big business, and the cynical, oft-repeated mantra is that the business has buried amateurism. There's no way, the story goes, that athletics can exist alongside academics. The natural next chapter in the story is too easy, lazy even: the kids are only in school to play basketball.
But that's not your story. That's someone else's story–given to you second-hand and memorized by you even if it isn't your experience. As written in the above quote, it's easy to learn an eloquent description of this relationship even if it isn't yours nor real.
So today it's important to shed light on a truth, a genuine concept that's real.
The VCU men’s basketball team had nine players achieve a 3.0
GPA or better this semester. What’s more, the cumulative GPA for the team is
the highest in program history. When Shaka Smart opened his postgame press conference the other night after defeating Western Kentucky by praising his team's academic performance, you knew it was a laudable moment.
"I'm proud of our guys. They
come here to get a degree," says Smart. "I tell them during recruiting that I won't guarantee
them anything about what happens on the court, but I do guarantee them that
they will graduate, provided they put in the effort and dedication to get
there. I also tell them that if they can't (put in that effort academically)
then they won't be here very long."
Smart is comfortable with that
statement because he has an ace in the hole that is the backbone of the
performance in the classroom—Sofia Hiort-Wright, VCUs Associate Athletic Director for Academic Support.
"I can guarantee them this because
of Sofia. She is an all-star, a superstar," he says. "She puts the guys in great
position to succeed–tutors, study halls, structure–we as coaches monitor them but she
does a phenomenal job in putting our guys in the position to succeed in the
We don't talk enough about the academic successes of collegiate athletes. To be sure it isn't a sexy story when compared to the millions involved in realignment and the give-and-take of bracket-fueled wins and losses. But that's the industry of collegiate sports, not the kids who comprise its teams. There is a difference, a perspective that takes much greater meaning when you look at it from the view of the athlete.
"Our value system (in college
sports), right or wrong, is such that stronger values, more powerful values,
are tilted towards winning and losing," says Smart. "It is what it is and I'm not saying it's
wrong, but sometimes lip service is given to the academic side, while at other
times there's a genuine effort by kids and their counselors to move forward off the
court. I very much believe that the
growth of our guys on the court is intimately tied to their growth off the
court. If I don't believe that I need to get out of coaching."
Smart tells of traveling the southeast with football coach Tommy
Bowden when they were at Clemson. The coaches would go from city to
city, speaking to Clemson's IPTAY organization, the fundraising arm of
would go from Charleston to Savannah to Jacksonville, essentially saying
the same thing to each group: "If I win 90% of the games and graduate
50% of the players I will
be the coach and get a raise. But if I win 50% of the games and graduate
the players I won't be the coach."
Says Smart: "That's about as succinct (description)
of where our priorities seem to lie as I've heard. Again, I'm not judging, but I'm
proud of our guys and their efforts to succeed academically."
And that's the thing. The cynical story we're given is that the players aren't pursuing academic success with as much rigor as basketball success. It simply isn't always true. There's so much governance and so much concern we lose sight of the fact that success can occur if it's managed properly, like with Sofia Hiot-Wright, and when you give the kids a chance.
Freshman Jordan Burgess is an example of the drive for success. By rule, Burgess is unable to travel with the rest of the VCU team on the road during the season. The theory: Burgess should not miss class by being on the road at basketball games so he can concentrate on classwork.
The reality: VCU missed one day of classes while traveling in the first semester. And Burgess earned the Athletic Director's Honor Roll.