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Online studies give players more options

by Will Lingo
February 27, 2006

The story of Roland Hemond's career is one that would make even Horatio Alger blush.

Hemond's path to becoming one of baseball's most respected executives involves a stint in the Coast Guard, a chance spring training meeting with a man who was blinded by mustard gas in World War I, and a foot in the door with a minor league club in Hartford, Conn., in 1951.

In his 50-plus years in the game, Hemond has served in just about every front-office capacity imaginable, including 24 seasons as a general manager with the White Sox (1970-85) and Orioles (1988-95). He currently serves as an executive adviser to the GM for the White Sox.

He accomplished all of that with nothing more than a high school education, but he recognizes it's unlikely many people could follow in his footsteps in the 21st century. "Today I wouldn't be granted an interview," he said.

That's why Hemond has always been passionate about education. Whenever he gets a chance, he encourages players to work toward a college degree. "For 30 years, I've been trying to get players to pursue their education, at least during the offseason," he said.

But he recognized that was a difficult choice for players to make. First, there was almost no way to get any serious schoolwork done during the season. Even in the offseason, however, players don't have a lot of time to catch up on their studies. And they frequently face a choice of furthering their education or their baseball careers by playing in the Arizona Fall League or winter ball.

So it takes a person with a singular commitment to education to work toward a college degree while still advancing his baseball career. Hemond's most shining example is Tony La Russa, who was manager of the White Sox from 1979-86. He went through 12 years of offseason studies before earning a law degree, and he passed the Florida bar a couple of months after he became White Sox manager.

"But for every Tony La Russa, there are many people who didn't persevere," Hemond said. "It was possible, but it really took a lot of work. But now technology is providing players with those opportunities."

Opportunity Meets Technology

Enter online education. Traditional colleges have integrated the Internet into their education offerings, but other institutions have sprung up that exist almost solely online.

Jim Grossman, a former University of Arizona baseball and football player who also played minor league baseball, now works as a consultant, and one of his focuses is helping athletes establish careers after their playing careers end. He spoke with Hemond and suggested the University of Phoenix as a solution to the problem of educating players.

The University of Phoenix calls itself the nation's largest accredited private university, and it's aimed at helping working adults earn college degrees. While the school has 170 campuses and learning centers in 33 states, its main focus is teaching students with online courses through the University of Phoenix Online.

So Hemond met with Brian Mueller, who was then the CEO of the University of Phoenix Online. (He has since become president of Apollo Group, the company that owns the University of Phoenix.) The two men agreed that an online education program sounded like a perfect solution.

Not only does it allow players to pursue degrees no matter where they are, but it also allows them to work on their studies during baseball season, when they're working hard but still have significant down time. All they need is a computer and spare time at any time during the day.

"Our programs are rigorous but flexible," Mueller said. "You have to participate (in the class), but it doesn't matter when you participate."

The way the University of Phoenix is structured, most students take one class at a time, in six-week blocks. Students have to do a lot of reading, follow online lectures and turn in writing assignments, but a significant part of a student's grade comes from participating in online discussions, which are structured like threaded message boards. But you can participate at noon or midnight, as long as you do it every day.

The school offers basic classes in writing and research skills for people who are starting from scratch on their college education, but it also has a variety of career-oriented programs and advanced degrees for players who might already have made some progress toward a bachelor's degree.

"Obviously, the major benefit is down the road because now you've got a college education and you're more marketable," Mueller said. "But I think a big benefit even when you're still playing is the structure it can bring to your time, and the feeling that you're accomplishing something productive in your off time."

Pursuing Big Leagues And Education

The university decided to offer a tuition discount to players, former players and their families, but many players can also get tuition help through the college scholarship plan that is included in the first professional contract they sign. Depending on the deal, major league teams agree to pay for a few or many semesters of a player's college education.

The problem is that baseball's draft system, which gets the overwhelming majority of its players either as high school seniors or college juniors, discourages players from earning their degrees before they start their careers, and few players end up taking advantage of the scholarship provision after they sign. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote a story about the problem in 2004, and based on their research there were just 42 players in the major leagues at the time who graduated from four-year colleges.

"Most guys play a few years, either make it or don't, and even when their careers end they don't go back to college," Hemond said. "Now they can get their education while they're playing ball. When the day comes they're no longer playing, they'll have a degree or be very close to it."

Hemond said a degree is obviously important if a player wants to pursue a career outside baseball, but it's becoming more important even if someone wants to stay in the game. Without a degree, players aren't able to apply for many high school and college coaching jobs, for example.

"I've seen too many players with good, solid careers seeking their niche after their careers are over," he said. "Their opportunities are limited at times, and they're not ready for life after baseball."

Now Hemond has a viable solution to propose to them. He's been evangelizing about the University of Phoenix since last summer, and the first player to join the program was Leo Daigle, who was a White Sox farmhand at the time and is in Orioles camp this spring.

Since then more than 35 other players have signed up, and that number should mushroom this year as word starts to spread. Hemond said he thinks players will not only find it doesn't interfere with their play, but that it also may help them play better because they won't worry as much about where their lives are going when their playing careers end.

"They can apply themselves toward making it to the big leagues while keeping up their studies," he said. "I'm deliriously happy about it. I've been calling for it for years, and it's like the fulfillment of a dream of mine."

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