Perfect play?

Something’s rotten in university locker rooms, and it’s not just unwashed socks. Influential new critics say college sports too often lead to out-of-proportion expenses, low graduation rates, resentment of athletes by other students, and disaffected alumni. The alternative? The principles of NCAA Division III. But even these bear watching, as problems formerly attributed only to big-time university programs trickle down to small campuses.

By Chuck Luce

Julie Vanni ’02 is an athlete at Puget Sound, and this is how she spends a typical day during basketball season:

7 a.m. – Roll out of bed, grab a snack. A few days a week get up an hour earlier and head over to the gym to shoot hoops. Fortunately, the house she shares with friends is right behind the fieldhouse.

8 a.m. – First class of the day–anatomy and physiology–in Thompson Hall. Vanni is a biology major, with plans to become a physical therapist.

9 a.m. – Another class–introduction to theater–in Jones Hall.

10 a.m. – Genetics class, back in Thompson.

11 a.m. – Work-study job in the sports information office, part of her financial aid package. She eats lunch at her desk.

Noon – Abnormal psychology class.

2:30 p.m. – Go to the training room for rehab exercises. Vanni has seriously sprained her ankles several times and must work hard to keep them strong enough to avoid another injury.

3 p.m. – On the floor for basketball practice.

5:30 p.m. – Back to the weight room for the weight-lifting regimen assigned to every player by Coach Barcomb.

6:30 p.m. – Dinner, followed by three hours of studying.

10:30 p.m. – A little time to relax, then crash.

7 a.m. – Do it all over again.

Most of us could work up a sweat just imagining a routine like that. But Vanni relates her day matter-of-factly. For her and nearly 500 other undergraduate athletes at Puget Sound–about a fifth of the student body–this numbing daily exercise in time management is simply the price of playing a game they love. No big deal, they’ll tell you.

What is remarkable is that these and other NCAA Division III athletes are quietly eclipsing their high-profile counterparts at Division I and II universities as role models in sport. That is the opinion of a host of new critics, most recently the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which warns that athletics programs are often out of touch with the educational mission of colleges and universities.

"We’re not in the entertainment business, nor are we a minor league for professional sports," said the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Notre Dame president emeritus and co-chair of the Knight Commission, at a press conference following the release of the group’s scathing report in June. "Your school is not worthy of being the champion of the country if you are not educating your kids."

Failure to teach is rarely a problem at Division III colleges such as Puget Sound. There, by contrast, sports are an integral part of the educational experience, a process that Amherst College President Tom Gerety has called "the sweatiest of the liberal arts." Division III has long been held up as thelast retreat of untainted amateur sport in the United States, but these days even Division III colleges must keep a close eye on sports programs to keep them from getting out of perspective. Here’s why.

 

A misplaced mission
College athletics didn’t start out uniformed in controversy, of course. Somehow, though, winning one for The Gipper got mixed up with money, especially within the last two decades, as television sports networks proliferated. TV needed programming, and college sports had plenty to provide.

"Sports today are much more in the public eye than they were in the ’70s," says Puget Sound Director of Athletics Dick Ulrich, who has been involved with athletics as a teacher, coach and administrator for 37 years. "Think about it. There was no ESPN 1 and 2. No Fox Sports Net."

At first, TV exposure seemed like a bonanza for higher education, bringing in revenue from the networks and national exposure for student recruitment. A few universities even experienced the so-called Flutie Factor, a term coined when national coverage of Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie’s game-winning pass in the final seconds of the 1984 Orange Bowl caused a surge in undergraduate applications and alumni interest at BC.

Suddenly, college marketing consultants began touting high-profile sports as a way to build what they called "the new Three Rs: recruitment, retention, renewal," wrote Murray Sperber in Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education. And while improving student admissions and building alumni support were worthwhile goals, the resulting athletics "arms race" too often meant that the old Three Rs took a back seat. Higher education was losing sight of its core mission, warned Sperber and a host of other critics, among them William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Bowen, a former president of Princeton, co-authored The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. When the book appeared in early 2001, it exploded many of the myths surrounding college sports and sent shock waves through administrative offices on campuses of all sizes. Wrote Bowen: "While American society expects a great deal from colleges and universities, and while many of these functions reach far beyond traditional academic roles, these places are–at heart–academic institutions. They are expected to train leaders for all segments of society. But if this leadership does not make the best use of the academic resources of the institution, then either the distinctive advantages of these institutions are being under-utilized or the places themselves have changed without admitting it."

That trend has not gone unnoticed outside the walls of academe, and public reaction is getting testy. One example can be seen in a lawsuit brought by the Rutgers 1000, an alliance of Rutgers University alumni who are pressuring their alma mater to quit the Big East conference, stop awarding athletic scholarships and spend less money on sports. In 1998 the group attempted to place an ad in the Rutgers alumni magazine that featured a quote from an alumnus, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, saying universities exist to teach, "not provide entertainment for spectators or employment for athletes." The university declined to run it, citing a policy against accepting advocacy ads. Last March a New Jersey judge ruled that the magazine violated the group’s First Amendment rights. Rutgers is appealing.

 

The myth of the Flutie Factor
Division III colleges don’t presume to make money on sports; their athletic programs are as much a part of the institution’s operating budget as the English department. But on many other campuses it has long been accepted that an athletics arms race is a justifiable evil because:

  • TV revenue, ticket sales and marketing of university apparel covers the high cost of fielding top-notch teams; and
  • successful sports programs yield increased alumni giving and improved student recruitment.

Both of those arguments now appear to be misguided. The fact is, only 15 percent of schools in Divisions I and II responding to a 1999 NCAA survey reported revenues exceeding expenses when deducting budgeted institutional support. Sports also have scant effect on alumni giving, except at a very small number of highly selective colleges. And high-profile sports also don’t influence prospective students, although other problems arise when recruiting athletes at small colleges–more on that later.

After analyzing information provided by 90,000 students who attended 30 prominent universities and colleges, both public and private, including 10 Division III schools, during the 1950s, ’70s and ’90s, Bowen and James L. Shulman reported in The Game of Life: "The data flatly contradict one of the strongest myths about college athletics–that winning teams, especially football teams, have a large, positive impact on [alumni] giving rates."

Richard W. Conklin, associate vice president for university relations at Notre Dame, concurred in Sperber’s Beer and Circus: "There is no empirical evidence demonstrating a correlation between athletic department achievement and fundraising. … The myth persists, however, aided by anecdotal evidence from sports reporters who apparently spend more time in bars than in development offices."

Bowen and Shulman did note a positive correlation between former athletes and giving at small, selective liberal arts colleges. The authors speculated this was due to the tight-knit communities at Division III schools and the fact that a large percentage of the student body at those schools is made up of recruited athletes.

The impact of intercollegiate athletics and winning teams on the enrollment decisions made by prospective students, too, has been largely misconstrued. StudentPoll, a newsletter of the Art and Science Group, Inc., which provides market information to higher education, conducted a survey of 500 college-bound high school seniors in April 2000. Researchers concluded that only a small fraction could even remember which teams won national football and basketball championships in the year of the survey. And while some, mostly male, students at large state universities said the fame of sports teams was a factor in their decision to attend, the majority rated jobs, internships, student clubs and organizations, and community service higher than athletics as activities that are important to them in college. The silent majority of college athletes

The Knight Commission, created by the Knight Foundation, a journalism community-service organization, last year convened an 18-member panel of academic and sports leaders to write a sequel to its 1991 report and statement of principles. The new report, issued in June and titled "A Call to Action: Reconnecting College Sports and Higher Education," proclaims that "problems of college sports have worsened" in the last 10 years. It goes on to describe the state of college sports in America as "abysmal" and a "disgraceful environment." Among remedies the Knight Commission proposes are:

  • Requiring athletes to go through the same academic processes as other students.
  • Improving the graduation rates of athletes.
  • Reducing playing times, practices and postseasons to afford athletes a realistic opportunity to complete their degrees.
  • Creating minor leagues such as those that exist for baseball, so athletes not interested in undergraduate study would have an alternative route to careers in professional sports.
  • Giving universities greater control of game schedules, how events are broadcast and which companies are permitted to use the university’s athletic contests as advertising vehicles, instead of bowing to television and other commercial interests.

Funny thing. That sounds a lot like NCAA Division III.

Division III players get no preferential treatment: No athletic scholarships. (Division III athletes receive financial aid, but it is based on need and academic merit, like every other student.) No academic tutors. No customized class schedules. No professors cutting them slack. Division III athletes are expected to perform equally well in the classroom and on the playing field.

"When we go on the road," notes Puget Sound softball Coach Robin Hamilton, "the conversation that often takes place during dinner isn’t about the game we just played. It’s, ‘Robin, does this hotel have a room we can use to study?’ The reality is that that 10-page paper is still due on Monday."

Despite the challenge of achieving both academically and athletically, more students play sports at Division III schools than at either Division I or Division II universities. In a typical year, more than 15,000 undergraduates participate on intercollegiate sports teams at Division III colleges across the United States. At Division I universities, which typically have much larger enrollments, there are about 13,600 athletes, with 3,700 in Division II, according to the most recent NCAA figures available. Division I programs are high-profile, so they get a disproportionate share of media attention. But Division III students are the silent majority in college athletics.

Silent, but committed.

"I think sports actually help me do better in school," says Julie Vanni ’02. "I like pushing myself physically and mentally. I know they help me manage my time better." Vanni, a Richland, Wash., native, was recruited by Division I schools but chose not to consider them, she says, because the coaches didn’t seem willing to make a personal connection with the players. "My high school track coach graduated from the University of Puget Sound, and I decided to visit and meet with athletes here. When I arrived, it felt like home."

Vanni plays two sports at Puget Sound; her track event is the heptathlon, and she’s a forward on the basketball team. "Having a greater chance to play is important to me," she says. "If I were at a Division I or a Division II school, I don’t think I could focus on academics and sports at the same time. UPS coaches know school comes first."

 

Teeth-gritting effort and triumphs of accomplishment
"By going to Division III we have nearly 500 students in the program," says Athletic Director Ulrich. "We offer 23 intercollegiate sports. We have sent hundreds of kids off to play in 20 national championships since 1996. If we put most of our resources into one or two high-profile sports, we could not fulfill the dreams of so many."

Dreams? National championships? How can a serious comparison be made? Isn’t Division III competition low-level, not much better than high school?

Don’t say that to the face of a Puget Sound coach.

"Students here see playing sports as a privilege, not a right. It is not an entitlement for a gifted athlete," says Hamilton. "But when we step onto a field or a court, our goal is to win. It’s intense. It’s competitive." The difference, she says, is in the degree of athleticism. There are still feats of teeth-gritting effort, great coaching duels and triumphs of team accomplishment, but the emphasis is on the participant, not the spectator.

"If it’s a choice between watching Division III athletes or turning on a television game, the question is: What are you looking for?" said Bowdoin College President Robert H. Edwards in a 1994 Sports Illustrated article. "You either want to experience the event and watch students giving their all, or you want to watch the game played at the very limits of human performance. Those are totally different things."

Even New York Yankees owner GeorgeSteinbrenner, a 1952 Williams College graduate and a man not noted for his tolerance of losing, said in the same SI article, "What Williams and the other [liberal arts] schools understand is that you learn just as much on the line of scrimmage as you do in the library stacks. The point is, a student shouldn’t just drink from the gymnasium fountain, but from all the fountains."

Christian Lindmark ’98, who played football and baseball at UPS while majoring in business administration, says he benefited immeasurably from such a philosophy. "I have talked to many other Puget Sound graduates and asked them the same question I asked myself: ‘Do you wish you had gone to a Division I school to play sports at the highest level?’ Their response is always, ‘No way. There’s more to life than sports.’ The most important thing Puget Sound taught me is how to deal with success and failure in my life. I realized there is no such thing as failure unless you quit, and there is no such thing as success unless you work hard to achieve it."

 

The challenge of balance
While Division III athletes hit the books hard, they’re still athletes. Many have worked to develop their talent since an early age, concentrating on practicing their sport to the exclusion of other interests. A few progress to the professional level. (Puget Sound’s Tye Tolentino ’01, for example, recently was selected in the A-League draft by the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team.) They play to win. So do the coaches, and recruiting athletes is one of the ways to build winning teams. Perhaps inevitably, then, this is where Division III encounters some controversy of its own.

A small college like Puget Sound, which competes in 23 intercollegiate sports, can run into trouble when athletes make up a large portion of the student body. Liberal arts colleges strive to build a well-rounded, diverse and stimulating student population by also recruiting future scientists, artists, historians and others. A healthy mix of interests means students can learn from one another, but the size of each freshman class is limited, and imbalance can result if too many student places are taken by narrowly focused athletes.

Swarthmore College provided a much ballyhooed case-in-point last December when its Board of Managers decided to reduce its intercollegiate sports from 24 to 21. Among the sports dropped was varsity football–this only two years after hiring a new football coach to revitalize the program. The decision left recruited athletes of the disbanded teams feeling betrayed, and many Swarthmore alumni are still fuming. Swarthmore enrolls about 1,450 undergraduates–1,000 fewer than Puget Sound–and the president and board thought they’d done the right thing by creating better balance in the student body, however hard the choice. "We believe that reallocation of resources to a smaller number of sports will enable the college to achieve a level of excellence in athletics that we haven’t enjoyed for many years, while Swarthmore maintains its academic distinction and leadership position in American education," said Swarthmore President Alfred H. Bloom in a statement.

Small liberal arts colleges did not escape criticism in The Game of Life. Shulman and Bowen found that even in Division III colleges athletes received admissions advantages, and the "athletics subculture" created by their presence segregated them from other students. They also reported that, when compared to the general student population, athletes underperformed academically, although the authors noted that this underperformance was no more pronounced than for other special interests, such as student government or the campus newspaper.

That’s not a problem at Puget Sound, says Vice President for Enrollment Management George Mills. In the Class of 2004, the most recent class for which statistics are available, the grade-point average and SAT scores of entering students were essentially the same for both athletes and non-athletes. That parity holds up as college years progress. In fall 2000 the average cumulative GPA for all undergraduates was 3.07. It was 3.06 for athletes. In fall 2001 the average GPA was 3.09; for athletes, 3.11. Graduation rates at Puget Sound, too, are about the same for athletes and non-athletes, according to the most recent data.

"We value student-athletes and work with a coaching staff that appreciates this," Mills says. "They seek recruits who meet the academic standards and values of the university first and who also are athletes who will contribute to our program.

"Each year we enroll about 125 freshman athletes. In a class of 650, that is a little over 19 percent. Given that we field 11 men’s sports and 12 women’s, I don’t see that as unrealistic. For reference, there are 90 new music students in the class, about 14 percent."

This kind of recruiting adds another dimension for coaches. "Recruiting student-athletes at Puget Sound is very challenging but also very rewarding," says Puget Sound football coach Gordon Elliott. "Obviously we want talented football players, but the more important fact is that we must recruit athletes who are a good fit with the high-quality academic student body here. So the emphasis is on the student much more than on the athlete. We want recruits who are committed to academic excellence and have the neccesary desire and passion to be accomplished football players."

The upside of this is teams populated with smart, hard-working young people who are eager learners and who love to participate in sports.

"Coaches who see themselves as teachers tend to thrive here," says Puget Sound President Susan Resneck Pierce. "Moreover, one of our coaches recently told me he valued our being a Division III school because our students participate in intercollegiate athletics out of love for the sport. They are not ‘playing for pay,’ as may be the case for students with athletic scholarships.

"I am also pleased that in addition to our very strong athletics program, many other students play intramural and club sports. For example, last year 30 percent of our students participated in intramural sports on campus.

"I think NCAA Division III provides us with the right balance of academics and athletics."

Chuck Luce, the editor of Arches, grew up playing basketball and soccer. His father coached basketball and was an athletics administrator for more than 40 years, first at the high school level and then at both a Division I university and a Division III college.