More than a game

National Collegiate Athletic Association, May 19, 2011

I was watching one of our all-conference basketball players at the top of his game recently. He played amazingly well. I listened as closely as I watched, because it was Chopin he was playing. The Nocturnes, I think.

The player, poised at the Steinway in our living room, was Kaleb Shelton, a junior who was the No. 1 scorer and rebounder on our men’s basketball team this year. For his efforts on the court, he was named a Northwest Conference scholar-athlete, and earned membership on the academic all-district team and a second-team all-conference designation.

He is a double major in music and Spanish and has earned a spot on the Dean’s List more than once, too. Quite a guy.

Rebounds and baskets are one thing. Chopin is another. And at Chopin – or Beethoven, Brahms, or Glass – no one is better than Kaleb. He is as talented on the keyboard as he is on the court – as much a monster under the boards as he is a master of the concert hall.

For the record, he won the very competitive School of Music Concerto Competition last year and performed as a soloist with the university orchestra. He is a regular performer at the president’s house, as well, often playing at the receptions and dinners we host for students, faculty, staff, alumni and community leaders.

And he plays piano for the same reason he plays basketball: He loves it. You can see it in his eyes whether he’s ripping the ball off the glass from a taller opponent’s hands or watching his own hands flash across the keys in a blur of precision and harmony. At Puget Sound, Kaleb can discover his passions and talents, and dedicate himself to anything from Rachmaninoff to rebounds.

Most people think of Division III as the colleges that don’t give scholarships. Well, no. Between 80 and 90 percent of Division III student-athletes receive financial aid – just not for playing a sport.

Like Kaleb, all of the students from our 23 intercollegiate teams – who make up about 30 percent of our student body – come to college for an education and play their sport for the love of the game, not for the money.

Many believe Division III is the smallest part of NCAA. In fact it’s the largest – 447  colleges and universities belong to DIII, while Division I has 335 and DII 302. DIII represents the most diverse sector of college athletics, too, including member colleges with enrollments ranging from 300 to 20,000.

There are public schools and private, single-sex and coed, historically black, religiously affiliated, and independents, sponsoring some 36 national championships every year. While you have to look pretty hard to find them broadcast on CBS or ESPN, those championships are as thrilling for their campuses as anything that takes place during March Madness or the Bowl Championship Series.

Perhaps most important, Division III student-athletes have the highest graduation rates of the three divisions, and they regularly outpace nonathletes on their campuses in the completion of degrees.

Facts like these are what drove the NCAA to engage in a branding initiative for Division III over the last two years, to clear up the confusion and communicate to a range of audiences exactly what Division III sports are all about. I serve on the Division III Presidents Council, and we developed a message platform, a visual identity, a media tour, a website and lots of supporting material (www.ncaa.org/divisioniii).

The key themes are simple – the same things I mentioned about Kaleb: DIII athletics is the place where student-athletes can experience the full range of college educational opportunities on campus, where they can discover their passions, develop their potential, and dedicate themselves to leadership and to making a difference.

But all you really need to know about NCAA Division III is Kaleb Shelton playing Chopin. Or the student who came to Puget Sound from Honolulu to play catcher on the baseball team and caught on to a leadership role in student government where he discovered a talent for graphic arts and event management. Now a senior, he’s planning a career in the field. Or the student from Federal Way who came to play football and ended up playing roles in the theater program as a business major. He’s a banker now, but just met with Spike Lee on campus to explore his passion for the film business. There’s the soccer player from Utah who broke most of our women’s scoring records and is now in medical school after graduating from Puget Sound with honors.

You get the picture. The idea behind NCAA Division III athletics is that the student-athlete has access to all the opportunities a great college experience has to offer – theater, music, student government, scientific research, and the valuable experiences offered by athletics competition, team play and leadership at a high level.

For me, DIII athletics is not just the biggest division in the NCAA, it’s the best. It offers up the ideal embodiment of the true student-athlete. And it just might play a little Chopin for you, too.

That’s how, and why, we play the game in DIII.

Ron Thomas, a member of the Division III Presidents Council, is president at Puget Sound, a Division III school in Tacoma, Wash. This comment piece appeared previously in the Spring 2011 edition of Arches, which is Puget Sound’s alumni magazine.