In Praise of Division III Athletics

This week--April 4-10--is NCAA Division III Week, a celebration of the 190,000 student-athletes who represent about 450 DIII colleges and universities. It's also a time set aside to recognize the philosophy and educational values underlying the division.

Division III was established in 1973 to be something different from big-time college athletics. The founding philosophy asserted that athletics was part of the educational process and that student-athletes should be treated in a manner similar to other students. The intention was to balance the tensions between athletics and academics by prohibiting athletics scholarships, and by requiring shorter practice and playing seasons to reduce the time spent away from studies.

But because of the power and prominence of sports in our culture, I find we're constantly working to protect this ground. We need to be vigilant in ensuring we're shielding our student-athletes and coaches from the excesses of a hyper-competitive environment.

Susquehanna University, where I serve as president, is a proud founding member of NCAA Division III. More than 570 student-athletes represent Susquehanna on 23 intercollegiate teams--more than 25 percent of our student body. Like many of our fellow DIII member institutions, we support intercollegiate athletics because we value it as a rich and important part of co-curricular life. Still, we must remember that it's just one part.

Each week, I sit with our students for a meal. Among the questions I ask them is, "If you were the president of the university, what would you change?" Many years ago, I brought a magic wand into these encounters and shared it with the student to whom I was posing the question. As the vice chair of the NCAA's Division III President's Council, and in the spirit of DIII week, if I could wave a magic wand, here's what I wish for all of us.

Support the Whole Student

Division III, the largest grouping in the NCAA's membership, aspires to be the purist form of intercollegiate athletic competition. As there are no athletic scholarships, all athletes compete for the love of sport. In fact, the Division III philosophy states that our colleges and universities place the highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience and on successful completion of the student's academic program.

I feel we could live this ideal better by encouraging our student-athletes to engage more in campus life beyond the classroom and the playing field. Student-athletes should be able to participate in study-away opportunities, as these are profoundly important learning experiences that help our students gain cross-cultural knowledge and understanding of difference. Their athletic training should not impede their ability to take an internship, participate in a service-learning project, join a club or organization, serve in student government, perform with a vocal or musical ensemble, or be in a theatre production.

Our division's philosophy statement charges us with supporting our student-athletes in efforts to engage in meaningful participation in nonathletic pursuits in order to enhance their overall educational experience. While the participation rates of Division III student-athletes in these opportunities lead the NCAA, I believe we can, and should, do better.

Resist a Powerful Sports Culture

The youth sports culture in American society is powerful. It leads to unrealistic expectations and excesses that follow athletes and their parents into intercollegiate play. Years before college, young athletes--particularly those in the middle and upper-middle classes--are increasingly pressured to specialize in a single sport in order to increase their opportunity to play college athletics and receive an athletics scholarship. They join year-round, sport-specific organizations requiring season after season of demanding participation (and significant financial commitment) in order to stay in the player-development pipeline. Parents devote their lives to taking their kids to practices and tournaments year-round in the belief that athletics provides a likely vehicle to fund their child's college education.

The facts simply do not support this assumption. Only 6 percent of all high school athletes will participate at any level in the NCAA. The largest percentage of those who do participate, approximately 40 percent, will participate in Division III. Of those that participate in the NCAA's other divisions, slightly more than half receive any amount of athletics funding (53 percent in DI and 56 percent in DII). Sports other than football and basketball seldom provide a "full ride." In reality, there is far more academic funding available in higher education (approximately $50B) than athletics scholarships (approximately $2.5B).

And a second, perhaps more troubling aspect of the youth sport culture exists. A recent NCAA study found that many--even most--student-athletes began specializing in their sports at what experts consider a very early age (before age 12). Many of these athletes reported that from a very young age, there were high family expectations that they play at a college, professional or Olympic level.

One might expect that at the Division I level, but there was remarkably little difference between the divisions when it came to early sport specialization. In men's soccer, for example, 68 percent of DI athletes specialized by age 12. So did 61 percent of DIII men's soccer athletes.

Research has found that young athletes who specialize in a single sport are up to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports. Single-sport specialization also has been associated with greater risk of burnout, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.

Division III gives some student-athletes an opportunity to compete in multiple sports. And without athletic scholarship dollars at stake, there is nothing that obligates DIII student-athletes to participate in their chosen sport. They are playing primarily because they are passionate about their sport(s).

Despite these facts, the youth sports culture continues to evolve. We must recognize that our Division III student-athletes, and their parents, are increasingly products of that culture. In particular, the excesses of the culture affect expectations about athletics time commitments that are at odds with the DIII philosophy. We must resist and, when necessary, combat the mindset that "more is necessary," or "more is better." We must distinguish what the Division III competitive model has to offer and why, in the long run, it is superior to the troubling trend evolving in youth sports.

Uphold the Ideals of Division III Athletics

In addition to its promise to place the highest priority on the educational experience of the student-athlete, Division III also pledges to encourage sportsmanship and integrity among its students, coaches, administrators and fans, and to ensure that the actions of our coaches and staff are fair, open and honest.

That said, I worry that in Division III we are sometimes a little too self-satisfied about our "purity," implying that we're above the scandals and problems that are more often associated with big-time college athletics. You don't hear as much about DIII scandals, but it's not because we're free of them. While Division III athletics don't generate revenue and huge media attention, that does not ensure that our division is not subject to competitive pressures. The desire to "win" is present also in Division III and can lead our institutions to seek to gain competitive advantage in ways that are antithetical to our philosophy. We must pay attention and guard against these pressures, and it falls to leaders on our campuses to intervene if there are problems that must be confronted.

It is no coincidence that Division III is the NCAA's largest group of member schools, conferences and student-athletes. Division III athletics is part of a well-rounded educational experience. It has served student-athletes and institutions well for more than 40 years. In this week where we celebrate what makes DIII unique, let us encourage the development of the whole student, let us resist the excesses of the youth sports culture coming to our campuses, and let us resist the desire to win at all costs that can lead any of our institutions astray.