An antidote for cynicism about college sports
News-Times op-ed, Jan. 22, 2012
By James W. Schmotter
2011 was a challenging year for intercollegiate athletics. Our national obsession with athletic competition was evident at packed venues everywhere, and media visibility was never higher.
But at the same time, criticism about intercollegiate athletics also reached new levels.
Scandals in Division I football and men's basketball, astronomical coaches' salaries, and realignments of conference participation that seem to have little to do with geography or traditional rivalries have all led to serious questioning about the role of intercollegiate athletics and of the ability of the NCAA to police abuses.
Serious observers have recommended dramatic changes; some have even advocated the payment of salaries to student-athletes in high profile sports.
Late in the year, a headline in a major higher education publication screamed: "What the hell has happened to college sports?"
For many fans, alumni and former college athletes like me, cynicism about all this is understandable.
But there is an antidote.
That antidote is the experience of the more than 170,000 student-athletes at the 444 colleges and universities that comprise Division III of the NCAA, including us here at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.
What's most important to remember about Western's student-athletes is how they are different from their NCAA Division I and II counterparts.
Like all Division III institutions, we at WCSU provide no athletic scholarships. Thus all of our student-athletes choose to play for the love of the game, and are unencumbered by the significant commitments that accompany an athletics scholarship.
Second, our student-athletes are different because they have greater opportunities to pursue the full spectrum of college life.
Recent WCSU graduates include a volleyball captain who sang with her fellow vocal performance majors at Carnegie Hall, a football and basketball player who studied abroad in Australia, a soccer goalie who won a summer internship at the National Institutes of Health and a swimmer who held multiple positions of leadership in student life and government.
Such experiences are certainly possible in the NCAA's other two divisions, but they are rarer.
These young men and women are different finally in participating in an environment where the overwhelming focus of athletics is the educational value and benefit provided to our student-athletes.
All NCAA institutions pursue this focus, but the approach in Division III is unique.
In particular, revenue generation and entertainment for broader audiences are not a priority for us.
In D-III, participation is the name of the game. At some member institutions, more than 30 percent of students participate in intercollegiate athletics, a testimony to the importance these colleges and universities place on such participation in sports.
Some of the value of this participation can be measured in academic achievement.
A topic of focus for the Division III community at last week's NCAA Convention was a recent national pilot study demonstrating that D-III student-athletes achieve higher graduation rates than do the overall student bodies of their institutions.
Over two years, 157 schools submitted data to calculate these rates. Those schools are "representative" of the division with respect to the ratio of public and private institutions, average enrollment, average sports sponsorship, and proportion of athletes to undergraduate enrollment.
For the 2003 cohort, the student-athlete graduation six-year rate was 66 percent, compared to 63 percent for the student body.
For the 2004 cohort, the gap was 67 percent to 63 percent. For some individual sports, the gaps are even larger.
Obviously, these are not "dumb jocks."
Yet, at the same time, Division III student-athletes at WCSU and elsewhere do share many of the characteristics of their larger, taller and faster Division I and Division II mates.
They work just as hard in practice.
They compete just as fiercely.
Winning is their goal every time they enter the playing field, court or pool.
They — and we — are proud when we view the many NCAA tournament banners that adorn the O'Neill Center and when Western programs achieve consistent success, such as men's and women's basketball and women's soccer have in recent years.
And in this pursuit of competitive excellence, WCSU student-athletes learn valuable lessons about discipline, teamwork and leadership, lessons they will carry with them throughout their lives and careers.
NCAA Division III urges participants in intercollegiate athletics to "follow your passions and discover your potential."
In every season, in all of Western's 14 sports programs, that happens every day, in our classrooms, on our playing fields and on our campus an in our community.
And, along the way, it produces competitive excitement rivaling that available in much more visible and expensive athletic venues.
Check out the schedule of upcoming WCSU contests and stop by.
You'll see what I mean.