University of Miami Quietly Helped Pioneer Lifetime Scholarships for Student Athletes

Last week the University of Maryland made headlines by guaranteeing all of its student athletes lifetime scholarships. That means even if the athletes leave early to pursue professional opportunities and they don't quite work out, they can always come back and finish their education. It got a lot of ink.

Well, as it turns out the University of Miami had quietly pioneered the practice under President Donna Shalala, and the school has offered the program for about 10 years now.

''I just felt it was an issue of integrity,'' Shalala told the Associated Press. ''And really, it started with Ray Lewis.''

Lewis is a Hurricanes football legend, but he left for the draft early and never finished his degree. Lewis went on to complete his degree but did so at Maryland University College. Shalala would prefer former student athletes to get their degree at the school they played for, even if they didn't finish in their initial four years.

"Coming back, they often can't afford to pay the tuition unless they've made the pros," Shalala continued. "And they can't get coaching jobs or teaching jobs unless they have their degrees. So they would have to commit themselves to finishing their degree.''

Shalala says that about 16 athletes have taken advantage of the program, many coming from the baseball team.

Though, perhaps the most notable athlete to finish their degree after leaving is Octavia Blue. She left the women's basketball team in 1998 for the WNBA. She played 10 years of professional ball, including three season in the WNBA. Afterwards she came back to school and met current women's basketball coach Katie Meier. Blue graduated and is now one of Meier's assistant coaches.

Shalala adds that the school is committed more than ever to making sure its student athletes graduate before leaving, so there are fewer players than there used to be who head to the pros without a diploma. Though, she wants to keep the option open even for those who do leave early.

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Kyle Munzenrieder