As the drama plays out at Northwestern University over the right of its football players to form a union and collectively bargain, the whole concept of the student-athlete at the big sports universities is coming under scrutiny. This issue is particularly interesting to me as the president of a university that considers its athletics program a major success. But then, we’re one of the little guys. We’re a Division III school, a 5,000-student public university of the liberal arts and sciences.
Still, allow me one cheer for the little guys. We don’t provide scholarships to our athletes for playing their sports. We don’t coddle our athletes or guide them into a special curriculum. We don’t house our athletes in sports dorms, or otherwise separate them from the student body. We don’t lose our athletes after a couple of years when they transfer to other teams or go pro. All of those issues raised by the Northwestern decision, and, which indeed, have been argued for years — the definitions of student, of scholarship, of athlete; the role of the sports as an income-producer, the value of TV contracts, the pay levels for coaches, the NCAA rule-violations — are largely non-factors at the D-III level. Division III is the purest and best form of intercollegiate athletics because students play for the love of the sport.
I am not writing this blog post to bemoan the excesses of big-time Division I athletics, but I would like to take this opportunity to extol the benefits of Division III sports for schools like ours. Currently about 450 colleges participate in D-III sports, making it the largest collegiate division. And we produce some fine athletes. This year, for instance, The University of Mary Washington’s women’s tennis team won its 11th consecutive conference championship; our men’s team won its 15th. Our men’s lacrosse team, ranked as high as 13th nationally, was selected for the NCAA Division III tournament. Last year our field hockey team, in its own NCAA tournament, made a run to the Final Four, and one of our sophomore swimmers, Alex Anderson, broke a Division III record in the 400 meter individual medley. Our men’s basketball team this year made it to the Division III Elite Eight. Other Division III colleges can tout similar or greater success. In fact, hundreds of D-III men’s and women’s basketball teams, tennis teams, soccer teams, and volleyball teams can be found in the Massey Ratings ranked among the D-I and D-II schools.
Yet our embrace of college athletics is not about the success of our teams. It’s about providing an opportunity for uniquely talented and disciplined athletes to compete at the college level and unite our students behind them. At least 500 of our students compete on 23 intercollegiate teams. These athletes are integrated into the campus, and they help infuse the campus with a keen sense of pride. We tell our athletes, “Remember — you don’t play ‘at’ Mary Washington, you play ‘for’ Mary Washington.”
That attitude was seen this year, when we hosted the Division III men’s basketball tournament and hundreds of our students lined up in the early dawn hours to obtain tickets for the games. When our team lost its second game to a fine Williams team, a thousand Mary Washington students poured out of the stands to congratulate and cheer our boys.
At Mary Washington, we treat college athletics as just another part of the educational process. Our athletics department is not a stand-alone entity. Rather, it is part of the Division of Student Affairs. We view our athletics programs as an extension of the curriculum. We believe our coaches are in the teaching business, just like our professors. We want our student-athletes to learn about teamwork and sacrifice, about their proper role on the team, about the team as family. We expect them to learn how to strive for goals, how to handle adversity, how to pick up their teammates when they are down.
“If done right, athletics can be one of the most meaningful of experiences,” says our athletic director Ken Tyler. Ken earned two degrees at William and Mary and captained the men’s basketball team there. But, he notes, “The lessons I learned on the basketball court were just as valuable as what I learned in the classroom.”
Of course, many of the lessons of sport are learned at the D-I level as well. And it would be unfair to paint all Division I sports programs with the same brush. Consider the Ivies, for instance. But in the most competitive conferences, especially in football and basketball, intercollegiate sport is too much about entertainment, about courting alumni support and contributors, about raising the school’s profile, and about bringing in revenue. At some schools, coaches are really CEOs of large businesses. They make big investments in their athletes for which they expect a healthy return.
In theory – because we don’t award athletics scholarships — we will never see those excesses. But in practice we are creeping closer. A lot of what happens at the Division I level trickles down to Divisions II and III. Grand new facilities get built. Coaching salaries inch up. More full-time assistant coaches get hired. Strength and conditioning programs grow, weight rooms are enhanced. It is fair to say there are D-III schools whose best athletic programs rival those of some D-Is.
For us, it’s a difficult balancing act. We would like to stay competitive with our peers, but we cannot compromise the values of our university, we cannot have athletics trump the rest of the university’s needs. We want to invest in our students’ academic and intellectual growth, and in their growth as a whole person, not just as an athlete.
In making its decision in the Northwestern case, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board wrote, “It cannot be said that the employer’s scholarship players are ‘primarily students.'” In Division III Nation, the opposite is the case — our athletes are primarily students. You have to be proud of them — it’s a real challenge to compete at this level and, at the same time, do the academic work necessary to earn a University of Mary Washington degree.