Becoming president at Centre College in July 1998 represented my first hands-on experience with NCAA competition at theDivision III level, and I must tell you that I quickly became a strong advocate for the style of athletic competition delivered by Centre and institutions like it. Division III athletics is about the business of building better young men and women–tomorrow’s citizen-leaders, as I like to say. I will come back to this, and it will be increasingly clear why I have become such a strong advocate for athletic competition in our Division.
In the spirit of full disclosure, however, you should know that I was one of those high school kids who took sports way too seriously; that I had a wonderful and successful Division I football career at Ohio University, at a time, even in Division I, when I was permitted, encouraged even, to be a superior student and active campus leader; that I coached for five years in Division I at Miami of Ohio, and we were a top-20 team in three of my five years there; that I supervised athletics during my 17-year tenure at the University of Richmond; and that my wife, Susie, and I sent our sons Luke and Mark off to Duke and Northwestern, respectively, as successful scholarship football players who completed their work in four years.
Even more, Susie’s maternal grandfather and dad, plus my dad, were successful college athletes before the NCAA even established divisional play. So, it should be clear that my family and I have had a long, established experience with Division I athletics, and I count it a blessing to have had these opportunities, though my attitude has changed radically in the past decade-plus.
I am deeply concerned about where we find our Division I sister institutions, and I am even more concerned about where they are headed. I have said for some years—more than a decade, in fact—that our Division I counterparts are headed toward an unhappy end. The ever-increasing professionalization, the recurring incidence of academic impropriety and off-the-field behaviors that fall somewhere between stupid and criminal, and the seemingly endless escalation of big dollars and expanding seasons have compromised the very notion of what it is to be a student-athlete, what it is to be an amateur competitor, of what it means to use athletics as a meaningful part of the educational experience offered by these colleges and universities.
That said, I urge us not to demonize the athletes who make this choice. They are the innocents here, lured into an “it’s my job” approach to college sports. They are modestly paid, willing victims.
And, much as I want to blame the coaches, whose perceived importance and salaries is a distortion of monumental proportions, I cannot. They are simply taking full advantage of the system in which they find themselves. Count most of them as good men and women with a strong dose of opportunism.
No, at day’s end the blame will fall to the Division I college and university presidents, to the NCAA leadership, to the leaders in the power conferences, and, of course, to the leaders of the various networks and sponsors who have turned almost every hour of the day into a parade of intercollegiate contests. These men, and a few women, might have taken Division I sports down a very different path, but they did not and they will not and they will get the blame, appropriately, for effectively destroying competitive athletics at these brand-name colleges and universities that we read about each and every day of the week.
It’s too bad. It was not inevitable. It could have ended differently, and countless thousands of Division I athletes—women and men—might have enjoyed a decidedly different, student-oriented experience that would have better prepared them for meaningful lives of work and service.
But, enough of this.
Beating up on Division I was not and is not my goal. I am here to offer praise for Division III athletics, which are played at 450 institutions by more than 190,000 young men and women. And I am confident in stating that our approach to intercollegiate athletics is decidedly stronger and represents best practice at this point in time.
What we have the opportunity to accomplish in the lives of student-athletes is profoundly better. We have kept the balance that at one time was relatively consistent across all divisions—a balance that honors the academic program, seeks to enhance the total student experience, emphasizes broad participation, and, in fact, offers an athletic “product” that is strong and high-quality and fun.
This focus on balance is writ large throughout our core values.
The guiding principle in our division, and I quote, is to “place the highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students’ academic programs.”
We also “seek to establish and maintain an environment in which a student-athlete’s athletics activities are conducted as an integral part of the student-athlete’s educational experience,” generating “an environment that values cultural diversity and gender equity among…student-athletes and athletics staff.”
We are a division that expects presidents and chancellors to have the ultimate responsibility and final authority for the conduct of the intercollegiate athletics program at the institutional, conference, and national governance levels.
We seek to affirm the “importance on the impact of athletics on the participants rather than on the spectators and place greater emphasis on the internal constituency than on the general public and its entertainment needs”; to “focus on intercollegiate athletics as a four-year, undergraduate experience”; and to “encourage the development of sportsmanship and positive societal attitudes in all constituents, including student-athletes, coaches, administrative personnel, and spectators.”
We say with pride that “the actions of coaches and administrators exhibit fairness, openness, and honesty in their relationships with student-athletes”; that “athletics participants are not treated differently from other members of the student body,” particularly with regard to admission and classroom performance measures, and that these same student-athletes “are supported in their efforts to meaningfully participate in nonathletic pursuits to enhance their overall educational experience.”
This not only sounds like balance to me; it sounds like education to me—the kind that builds better young men and women. It sounds like college athletics.
We need to remind ourselves of these core values regularly, as all this is decidedly good for us and good for our students and, I would argue, speaks to the educational value of athletic competition. It is this kind of experience that I believe can play an important role in the development of citizen-leaders who emerge from college and competitive sport fully prepared for their lives of work and service.
But, what we do with our future is not without challenge, and in that spirit I call off three potential developments that represent threats to Division III and the athletic experience we offer to the young men and women who pass our way.
First, it is not impossible to imagine that coaches, athletic directors, faculty representatives and presidents in our division could make the mistake, incrementally, of chasing after our well-intentioned but misguided brothers and sisters in Division I.
During my time in Division III, I have seen this possibility raise its head more than once. There are some among us who believe that more is better: more practices, more contests, more time and greater levels of significance given to alternative seasons for all sports, more coaches and a “facility-chase” that resembles Division I.
Good or bad, we can be sure that many of our students and their families would welcome a competitive experience that is more like what occurs in Division I.
For the record, I am not suggesting that we never consider and make well-considered change or addition, but I am resolute in my belief that the test for such changes must always be measured against whether such modification compromises the student experience and forces our Division III athletes to miss out on other aspects of the college experience that have value and, in fact, do much to prepare them for their lives of work and service.
More is not better and bigger is not better, and we need to be watchful of change that moves us in that direction.
Second, having suggested that our Division I brothers and sisters may be headed toward an unfortunate end, it must be acknowledged that Division I revenues allow Division III to sustain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.
Mind numbing are the dollars and cents brought into the NCAA largesse—some $989 million in 2014 and in excess of $1 billion in 2015. The portion designated to “sponsoring” Division III activity is large and remarkable—some $28.5 million in 2015-16, though that number represents a mere 3.1 percent of the organization’s total revenue.
And make no mistake; this resource would not be easily replaced. This funding fuels the engine for our championships and many of the student-development programs that distinguish our division. I offer up my thanks for the support we receive from the NCAA, but also note that any kind of serious disruption in the NCAA funding model—one that is dependent almost in total by the five to six power conferences and television revenue resulting from men’s basketball—would cause those of us in Division III to experience a drop in support that would also be mind numbing.
So, what are we to do—other than wait and pray?
Those of us who find ourselves in Division III need to be thinking and talking about “what if”? We would be required to rethink almost all aspects of our divisional operation, but I am confident that we could make lemonade out of such an occurrence if we were required to do so. I also think we would be smart—wise, even—to begin a conversation about how we would meet such a challenge.
I repeat that I would be pleased to be completely wrong about the end-game for our brothers and sisters in Division I, but I fear that I am right, and I think that the challenge resulting from this watershed moment in the NCAA will come to us sooner rather than later.
Third and last, reminding you that I coached college football for five years—on the offensive side of it, no less—I believe we find ourselves at a point in time when we need to go on the offense in telling the story of what we accomplish with intercollegiate sports and the impact we expect it to have as part of the student-athlete’s educational experience. Simply stated, it’s time for us to be more intentional about how we tell the story and highlight the outcomes of the students who compete in Division III.
Moreover, we should make no apologies for the quality of play we produce. Having watched our Centre teams in NCAA championship-level competitions in football, cross-country and track & field, in men’s and women’s basketball, in men’s soccer, in field hockey, and, most recently, our women’s soccer team’s appearance in the 2015 Final Four, I know we deliver an athletic product that is competitive, fast and fun, exciting and high quality. We need to announce more boldly to prospective students and parents alike that the chance for a young person to perform, to compete, to learn and to find great joy in athletic competition is alive and well in Division III.
If my predictions are correct, in another decade or less, Division III may be, in fact, the choice that many students and parents will choose to make instead of signing on to an intercollegiate experience that is increasingly “job like,” even more focused on W’s and L’s (if that’s even possible), directed even more by influences outside the academy (if that’s even possible), and that makes even less of an attempt to suggest that intercollegiate competition is about building better young men and women (if that’s even possible).
We need to claim that our brand is superior, and, then, we need to be sure that we stay true to the philosophy that I spoke of earlier, because doing what’s right to protect our brand is not guaranteed. We must be prepared to step up and be sure that our division stays the course, does not allow itself to bend in a direction that steals away the joy, the completeness, and the balance of what we accomplish in Division III athletics.
It will be a fight for sure, but one worthy of our best effort. For those of you prepared to engage in such battle, I wish us Godspeed.
I close with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, who is credited, appropriately, with having saved intercollegiate athletics—football, in particular—back at the turn of the last century. And I remind you that football in the early 1900’s at all levels in America had become an ugly, violent sport that was taking lives by the dozens each fall.
So, what did he say and why might it matter now?
Writing to his son Ted from the White House on October 4, 1903, President Roosevelt is both encouraging and cautious. “I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports,” Roosevelt says. “But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence. I don’t want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life.”
Then Roosevelt adds this: “Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master.”
I think the philosophy represented by Division III would meet or exceed President Roosevelt’s expectations for athletics. We have stayed the course and have not allowed “athletic proficiency” to become the master of the student-athletes who compete on our campuses across America. Better yet, we are devoted to using competitive experiences as a way to prepare young men and women for their lives of work and service.
In the end, building tomorrow’s citizen-leaders in our classrooms and laboratories and practice spaces and athletic facilities is a far better, far more balanced course.
by President John A. Roush
March 1, 2016
This article originally appeared on Huffington Post and is adapted from President Roush’s remarks delivered on January 14 at the 2016 NCAA Convention in San Antonio, Texas.