On and Off the Court | Nun pushes athletes to be better students


When Arthur Ashe enrolled at UCLA, his choice to attend was certainly influenced by the fact that they had one of the best tennis programs in the country and that he had received a full scholarship based on his skills. However, he was also drawn by the ability to get a great education and the opportunities that attending a university would afford him, even beyond the world of tennis.
In his first year there he was named to the United States Davis Cup team and the following year he was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in a Crowd. Both of these honors garnered national attention, but despite being a rising tennis star, throughout his undergraduate career Ashe stayed engaged academically, maintaining good grades and eventually graduating in 1966 with a degree in business administration.
Today, many college athletes seem to focus primarily on their sport and not necessarily on their education. A wonderful exception is Xavier University’s athletes. Much of this is due to Sister Rose Ann Fleming, who has been the school’s academic adviser for athletics since 1985 and has been committed to making sure that her student athletes don’t fall behind on the student part. In her position she oversees, with help, 271 athletes across 17 different sports. Acting independently of coaches, she sometimes schedules academic appointments or meetings with students during practice times.
The 77-year-old, who lives on campus and conducts her day in the University’s official Nike sweats, makes dorm calls, often showing up at students’ doors unannounced. She openly describes her methods for monitoring students’ performance as “intrusive.” A member of the order Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Sr. Rose holds a law degree and masters’ in both English and business administration. She spends her spare time working on law cases through the group Volunteer Lawyers for the Poor.
In addition to her personal interventions, Xavier requires all freshman athletes to go to 10 hours of supervised study hall each week, a requirement they can only get out of if they maintain above a 3.0 grade point average in subsequent years. A former student-athlete herself—she played basketball and field hockey in college—she has graduated every member of the men’s basketball team during her tenure there, with a record of 77-0. This stands in stark contrast to the overall picture of men’s college basketball. It has the lowest graduation rate across all NCAA sports, with less than two-thirds of players graduating and receiving degrees. By comparison, Kentucky, the number one team going into this year’s tournament, has a 31% graduation rate for its male ballers.
Sr. Rose’s work shows how sports need not detract from academic pursuits; in fact, she has said that the discipline and focus required to excel in sports are the same skills necessary to excel in academics. If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because Arthur Ashe shared this same belief. It is the reason why in his work setting up youth organizations to encourage more kids to play tennis, he always included education and components as part of the program. Both Arthur Ashe and Sr. Rose have shown that true student-athletes are a winning combination.

Photo courtesy of Xavier University
The New York Times article At Xavier, Nun Works Out Players’ Academic Side

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