Director of Academic Support Mark Meleney, Head Coach Bobby Bowden, and Karen Laughlin
Nov. 23, 2003
By Mark A. Riordan
Student athletes at FSU are held to high standards and Mark Meleney, the university’s head of academic advising for athletes, wants the faculty and administrators to know that.
To that end, Meleney and his staff run a faculty outreach program that invites faculty to spend time with athletes and coaches as they begin final preparations before a game or match. The Guest Faculty Program, as it’s called, introduces these faculty members to the “academic” side of athletics.
Starting with some one-on-one time with the team’s head coach, say Bobby Bowden or Sue Semrau, the professors are introduced to the sport and given a breakdown of what that week’s game holds in store for the athletes who will take the field or court.
After hearing the game plan from the head coach, the faculty are taken to position meetings where they hear how each player is taught the offensive and defensive reads for the game. They hear the in-depth planning and they see how football, basketball, indeed any sport, is something that has to be taught.
“I never realized the depth of knowledge the athletes have to learn to do their job on the field or courts,” said Prof. Fran Berry, director of the MPA program in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy and first-year member of the FSU Athletics Committee.
Prof. Berry and her husband political science Professor William Berry attended the Guest Faculty Program for the Wake Forest game.
After the faculty sit in on the position meetings, they meet with Meleney and his staff to discuss their issues and concerns about student athletes and to hear what the athletics department expects and demands of the university’s athletes.
“I believe this program gives the faculty insight into the inner workings of the athletics department and allows them to understand that many of these student athletes are our very best students on campus as well,” Meleney said. “I think faculty change their perspective a little bit once they get an understanding of the value that our students give back to the university.”
Following their fly-on-the-wall orientation, the faculty attend practice to see the players apply what they’ve just learned in the “classroom.” Then, it’s off to dinner with the team.
The next day, they attend the open athletics recruiting meeting where Meleney, his staff, and FSU coaches stress to the recruits and their parents and friends that FSU expects them to live up to their academic obligations. The faculty then get to witness pre-game warm-ups from the field and watch the same players they’ve been following, their students, put their game faces on.
The 10-year-old program was an eye-opener for Prof. Berry.
“I have learned how hard student athletes work and how full their days are,” she said. “They may report early in the morning and late at night to study halls. They schedule their academic classes, and then fill in with weight training or workouts and then later with team practices, and after dinner, back to academic work. I have also learned how bright and academically talented many, probably the majority of athletes, are. Most men and women athletes have very strong GPAs and are not struggling to stay in school. In fact, it is only a very small number of student-athletes who struggle to stay in school.”
As a result of his participation in the program Communications Professor Mark Zeigler knows exactly what’s expected of athletes, and he knows where to turn if ever a problem arises.
“I’ll go up to a group of football players on the first day and say, ‘OK, men, I expect you to toe the line in here. If you don’t, I know all your position coaches and I know Mark Meleney and if you foul up, they’re going to know,'” Zeigler said.
Thanks to Meleney, Prof. Zeigler can do that.
In fact, Zeigler admits, knowing that Meleney and the staff of academic advising are there allows him to hold the athletes to an even higher standard.
“When an athlete sits down in my class I say, ‘Wow another athlete.’ I don’t look down on them at all, and in some ways I probably ride them a little harder,” he said.
He has to, he explains, because athletes are role models.
“I have learned how hard student athletes work and how full their days are, they may report early in the morning and late at night to study halls. Most men and women athletes have very strong GPAs and are not struggling to stay in school.
Prof. Fran Berry
“They’re very identifiable,” he said. “Everyone knows the athletes in the class. They are wearing the Nike athletic apparel, and everything they do is being watched by every student. Everything. If they come to class and sit in the back of the room, on the floor, don’t have a notebook, whether they have on a Walkman…”
For Zeigler, who concedes that he loves sports, it’s important for student athletes to represent the best behavior.
“There are some students who never go to a game, who don’t know the athletes, who see that one player, who will extrapolate and stereotype athletes, not only on that team, but to athletes in general,” he said.
“So, when it comes to classroom behavior, I probably ride the players a little harder than the normal students because their actions are so magnified,” he added.
The kind of rapport that Zeigler has developed with coaches and athletes is precisely what Meleney is after with the Guest Faculty Program, but he understands that with some faculty it won’t be as easy.
“This program allows faculty to make a connection to our program,” Meleney said. “It allows them to understand that we can play a role in the success of the students in their classes as well. That we can intercede if needed.”
In the end, as with everything else at the university, the program is about the students.
“The next group of students who take a course with that faculty member then have the insight to work with that faculty member,” Meleney said. “And that faculty member, as well, embraces those student athletes and recognizes the pressures they are under, and, more importantly, that they are being held to high standards.”