Athletics Question: Just a Smidge More?

May 26, 2010

A question comes via e-mail to me and several other liberal arts college presidents from a colleague asking about a proposed rule change in NCAA Division III.  The question had come to him from his athletic director and basketball coach.  “Essentially [the proposed rule change] asks to allow for a certain number of hours of coach-athlete contact in ‘fundamental skill instruction’ outside of the playing season,” he says, and adds, “the proposal seems tame enough to me that I would be prepared to support it,” but he wants to know what we think.

Division III, for those who do not live in this world, is made up of 400+ colleges and universities that do not award athletic scholarships.  I have come to think of D3 as the last, best home of amateur athletics.  Each year I go to the NCAA Convention to vote on proposed rules changes, the large majority of which would have the effect of devoting a smidge more of time and resource to athletics, and therefore a smidge less of time and resource (either for students or the institution) to non-athletic pursuits including academics.  We are trying to find the proper place of athletics in the larger educational enterprise, but there is relentless pressure from coaches and others — all caught up in the world of athletics that takes its cues from professional sports — to devote yet more and more to athletics.

Just a few years ago we agreed to allow each sport to have a “non-traditional season.”  In times past, football was a fall sport, and coaches could not, in Division 3, hold spring practices.  But now we do.  I say “we” but I was a “no” vote on that one, and on other such proposals.

So on this new proposal, I find myself in agreement with a president who responds “do we want to ‘creep’ a sports season past the boundaries that we’ve established for it (in this case, a sport with calendar boundaries that have recently grown) or not?  All of these proposals, sport by sport, sound innocent enough, but collectively they lead to students being engaged with their sport for a larger and larger proportion of the academic year.”  He doesn’t want more creep.

And I agree with another president who urges that we “we push back against this relentless tendency of athletics to take ascendance over our academic programs.”

I love college athletics, but I want athletics to take a rightful place in the overall mission of the college.  I want our student-athletes to be able to do study abroad in a semester they aren’t playing a sport, or to be in a theatrical performance, or even to play a spring sport as well as a fall sport and in so doing not feel that by missing spring practice for football or soccer they are letting down their coach or their teammates.

So no, not a smidge more.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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