The Last Amateurs?
Fed up with college sports? Tired of hearing about
one-and-dones, or recruiting scandals, or coaches making $4-million
Welcome to the land of milk and honey, where athletes major in comparative literature, run for president of the student body, study abroad in their off season, and occasionally deliver the valedictorian's address. OK, maybe not all at once, but you get the picture: We're talking about the NCAA's Division III, the largest but least-known group of college athletes.
But much to the chagrin of Division III leaders who want to educate the masses about what they see as the many virtues of their world, the harder-edged, prime-time images—usually, but not always, stemming from Division I—form the public's idea of The College Athlete.
"Their vision is what they see on TV," says Kitty Baldridge, an associate professor of physical education and the faculty-athletics representative at Gallaudet University. "That's not Division III."
Changing this perception is harder than you might think, say Dan Dutcher, the NCAA's Division III chief, and Jim Harris, president of Widener University and chair of the NCAA's Division III presidents council. (Dutcher and Harris, along with Baldridge and Jeff Burns, the athletic director at Randolph-Macon College, visited The Chronicle today to discuss their current efforts to spread the word.)
The issue of athletic scholarships is a big sticking point. Unlike Divisions I and II, Division III doesn't give them. Burns, for one, says he's constantly explaining to parents the differences between Division III and the other two groupings. "I'm amazed at the misinformation out there," he says.
And Harris says he often encounters prospective students who, attracted by the cachet of attending college on an athletic scholarship, pass up generous offers of merit-based aid at his Division III institution in favor of a modest athletic scholarship at a Division II college.
But folks in Division III, it turns out, are tired of defining themselves simply by what they don't do. And they're weary of downplaying the antics of their high-profile peers in Division I.
So Dutcher, a genial longtime NCAA executive, is determined to rally his 450-member institutions around what he calls "core values," or concepts that all Division III colleges—no matter their size, location, or culture—can identify with. Officials at each college will soon receive a "tool kit" to help them talk about Division III to faculty, parents, alumni, or boards. And within the next week or so, the NCAA will unveil a new Web site dedicated solely to explaining the Division III ethos.
Maybe then, Dutcher hopes, people will realize that nearly half of the NCAA's 400,000 or so athletes compete in Division III, far from the limelight. Given the heat the NCAA takes over thorny issues in big-time college sports, shining some light on a world where the label "student athlete" often rings true might not be such a bad idea.