This editorial originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
When Randolph-Macon’s football rivals from Hampden-Sydney climb on their buses early this morning to traverse 78 miles through splendid Virginia countryside toward our Ashland campus, it will mark the 128th meeting of two football teams – a match we call The Game, often billed “the South’s oldest small college football rivalry.”
The 8,000 or so fans that gather around Day Field or in nearby tailgates will nearly double the population of Ashland for one raucous afternoon.
Of course, one might see similar phenomenon in other locales across the country in places like Gainesville, Florida or Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But there is something significantly different about what will transpire in Ashland. It will be a contest between two NCAA Division III institutions, as opposed to the Division I contests we see all over television on Saturdays.
DIII and DI programs differ significantly in a myriad of ways. For starters, the scale of DIII institutions and their athletic expenditures are hugely disproportionate to DI. DIII athletes are not given athletic scholarships, though more than 80% receive other institutional aid.
But, importantly, the philosophy of Division III athletics contrasts dramatically from what Division I has become. Since its inception in 1973, DIII leadership has prioritized a well-rounded college experience. Consider this excerpt from the Division III Philosophy Statement: [Division III institutions should] place special 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.
This 50-year-old statement seems prescient in today’s upside-down college sports world! While collegiate football games were certainly being televised back then, few could have anticipated the enormous media explosion that has produced an $18.5 billion college sports industry. The recent realignment of Power 5 athletic conferences is particularly problematic, seemingly designed to fulfill billion-dollar television contracts at the expense of regional rivalries and common-sense travel for their students and fans. Picture the newest ACC member, Cal Berkley, sending its tennis team 5,166 miles roundtrip to play a match against their new conference rival, the University of Miami. I do not envy the player, coach, or academic dean figuring out how to fit that trip in between the players’ classes!
The profound issues facing college sports today found new NCAA president Charlie Baker testifying before Congress recently asserting the drawback of athletes becoming paid employees, the labyrinth of individual state laws on NIL (and the gigantic impact it’s having on recruiting) – both issues Congress needs to deal with – and the challenges around college athletes with free-agent-like mobility due to the transfer portal.
Further complicating DI’s landscape is a recent class-action lawsuit filed by present and former athletes against the NCAA and the Power 5 conferences for potentially billions of dollars. From a business perspective, these issues are all very serious – and I fear if they are not handled well, they will direct the NCAA’s spotlight further away from the quality of an athlete’s overall educational experience.
I love to remind each of our Yellow Jacket teams at RMC yearly that DIII athletes like them are afforded the same life lessons and competitive opportunities that any other college athlete might have. Lessons like being part of a team; the discipline of hard work and preparation; the importance of competition; of looking out for each other – on and off the field; how to deal with losing – and winning; and the significance of their role in representing well their school, its students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
I think these lessons have lifelong impact. A 2020 Gallup/NCAA study reports former athletes have even stronger satisfaction with their college experience and stronger post-graduate outcomes than their peers. And our RMC student-athletes have a higher rate of persistence in college and a higher graduation rate than their non-athletic peers.
At the same time, Yellow Jacket student-athletes are able, and expected, to pursue an even more meaningful academic experience. They still travel abroad, double major, engage in meaningful internships and career preparation, and participate in other campus organizations. Our outstanding student body president, Abi Detrich, is also a women’s lacrosse player.
That same Gallup/NCAA study I referenced above shows DIII student-athletes have impressive and meaningful relationships with professors and mentors at a higher rate than their DI counterparts. Moreover, DIII athletes also have higher graduation rates – and a significantly higher rate of graduating in four years or fewer – than DI athletes.
Plus, playing on ESPN might raise a student’s public profile, but it won’t produce any more desire and competitive spirit than our Yellow Jackets and the Tigers will ardently demonstrate on Saturday – and remember for a lifetime.
We’re proud of our storied rivalry and yes, we’re proud of our wins on the field. But we are even more proud of how our student-athletes participate in a full college experience that undoubtedly enhances their lives.
Weighty issues face DI with enormous economic stakes—leaving me to fervently hope that DIII doesn’t become the last refuge where student-athletes can truly be students.