ST. LOUIS (AP) -- They play for the love of the game, not with the hope of landing a pro contract. Without athletic scholarships, many even pay their own way to school.
The notion of student-athletes as students first is integral to Division III, the NCAA's largest classification. But a growing body of research shows a considerable gap in classroom performance between Division III athletes and their counterparts in the overall student body.
The mounting data is forcing the NCAA to consider such steps as tracking graduation rates and other measures of academic performance -- a task now left up to individual schools. A pilot academic-reporting program could be approved at the association's annual meeting in Atlanta next month.
"There's this image that Division I is really serious (about sports), and Division III doesn't have these issues," said Robert Malekoff, an assistant professor of sport studies at Guilford College in North Carolina and a former coach and athletics administrator at Princeton and Harvard.
Former Princeton president and author William Bowen sounded the alarm about academic underperformance at smaller colleges earlier this decade. His research led The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which Bowen ran for eight years after retiring from Princeton, to form the College Sports Project.
The project is spending five years tracking academic performance at 88 of Division III's most intellectually rigorous schools, from Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams in New England to the University of Puget Sound and the California Institute of Technology.
For CSP researchers such as Middlebury College dean John Emerson, the early results are discouraging.
After one year in college, male athletes entering school in 2006-07 had average class ranks 9 percentile points lower than non-athletes. Recruited male athletes had class ranks 6 percentile points lower than non-recruited male athletes.
The gap was only slightly lower for students who had finished two years of college.
"It is definitely true that intercollegiate athletes tend to have lower grades than non-athletes at college institutions," he said. "The million-dollar question is, 'What's the reason for that kind of underperformance?"'
The College Sports Project research has clearly caught the attention of college sports' primary overseer, the NCAA.
While NCAA officials caution that the research is preliminary -- and the study represents a sampling of only the most elite schools among the division's 432 institutions -- Division III members will consider setting up a pilot academic-reporting program as soon as 2010-11 at the association's annual meeting in January.
Unlike Division I schools, which can be penalized with a loss of scholarships for not meeting minimum academic progress rates, the lower division doesn't plan to use academic tracking as a punitive tool, Dutcher said.
Players and coaches at one successful Division III school think their level of competition strikes the right balance between school books and play books.
At Washington University in St. Louis, senior guard Aaron Thompson described grueling two-a-day preseason practices for the two-time defending Division III basketball champions. He also told how fellow captain Cameron Smith arrives late to two practices each week because of a class conflict and how the team takes Monday off because too many top players have evening classes.
"Division III really has the priorities straight," said Thompson, a team captain and preseason All-American.
Bears' coach Mark Edwards is a former Division I assistant under George Raveling at Washington State who returned to coach his alma mater nearly three decades ago. He has no plans to leave.
"I wanted to be in a program where the kids wanted the education, where they wanted to be challenged," he said. "In Division III, the focus is on the student-athlete. At Division I, it's focused on the fan, producing an entertaining product."
Edwards also said he doesn't see any evidence of an emphasis on athletics at the expense of academics in Division III. He called the academic tracking proposal -- whether driven by independent researchers or mandated by the NCAA -- a "non-issue."
Washington University and the other members of the University Athletic Association -- Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Emory, Rochester, the University of Chicago and New York University -- declined to participate in the Mellon Foundation study.
"Maybe they felt they had things right and didn't need to," Emerson said. "They seem to be defining a positive standard for the rest of us."
Yet Emerson and others studying small-college athletics say tracking athletes' performance in the classroom is fundamental to ensuring that Division III lives up to its core philosophy.
"That's not an unattainable goal. It's not just pie in the sky," he said. "It's an ideal worth working for."
On the Net:
College Sports Project: http://www.collegesportsproject.org
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 12-14-09 1632CST