A different reality for NCAA Division III student-athletes vs. those in Division I

Athletics has a way of capturing the public’s attention. Over the past few weeks as tragic details came to light about alleged atrocities generated at and around Penn State University, I was in the midst of travel throughout Asia. Newscasts continuously reported on the situation and in a matter of days, the scenario shifted from the horrible acts of a single individual to the collective and morally devoid acts of an entire institution. During one visit to a Chinese university, I was asked about the phenomenon of collegiate athletics in the United States, as there is no comparable situation in any other country.

Athletics is “big business” in our society. Professional sports have capitalized on media exposure and been financed through an advertising revolution over the past 30 years.  Division I college programs have also been affected by this phenomenon with many head coaches commanding salaries of up to $5 million. Penn State’s football program is reported to generate $50 million annually. This fame and fortune is coupled with great demands for success. The sole definition of success in many of these programs is winning the national championship. Anything less is failure leading many coaches, administrators and boards to ignore the institution’s core mission. Sadly, Penn State is but the latest negative circumstance surrounding Division I athletics.

This situation also speaks to the relationship between an institution’s programs, particularly athletics, and the communities they serve. The relationship includes an expectation of integrity and trust on behalf of the institution. Penn State’s leadership seems to have forsaken those expectations at the expense of the innocent victims involved.

While Rockford College athletic teams are not competing in the same economic stratosphere as the major Division I programs, some of the concerns hampering those programs impact institutions of our size. One of the more significant concerns is how much of a student’s time is devoted to athletic competition and preparation versus academic obligations. This concern must be continually monitored and addressed. Our athletes primarily compete in the Northern Athletics Conference, comprised of institutions in Illinois and Wisconsin. The close proximity of conference colleges and universities is a major plus for us. Many college programs are aligned with conferences that are more geographically dispersed and have significantly more travel time resulting in additional missed class time.

Rockford College competes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III. On its website, the NCAA describes Division III as follows:

Division III institutions have to sponsor at least five sports for men and five for women, with two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender. There are minimum contest and participant minimums for each sport. Division III athletics features student-athletes who receive no financial aid related to their athletic ability and athletic departments are staffed and funded like any other department in the university. Division III athletics departments place special importance on the impact of athletics on the participants rather than on the spectators. The student-athlete’s experience is of paramount concern. Division III athletics encourages participation by maximizing the number and variety of athletics opportunities available to students, placing primary emphasis on regional in-season and conference competition.

I asked Kristyn King, alumna and our Athletic Director, about her perspective on our alignment with Division III. Kristyn is a product of Division III sports and as such, she truly believes in Division III athletics. “It provides opportunities for our student-athletes to grow not only in athletics but in all other areas. Division III athletes truly have a passion for the sport they participate in; they are not getting paid to do it and they just love playing. Rockford College is a good fit with Division III, as it is our goal to help students experience all that is available to them on the playing field, in the classroom, and as part of the RC community.” When asked how she measures success in our athletic programs, Kristyn lists several metrics with academic success and a positive student experience being first and second respectively.

Athletics should help serve the mission of the institution. The intent is for student-athletes to benefit from their experience with opportunities to reflect on moral and ethical values, leadership skills and what it means to be a productive member of society. Kristyn and our coaches, following the philosophy of Division III athletics, work to ensure athletic participation is an integral part of creating a distinctive student experience for our student-athletes.