Our Division III men’s soccer team left campus today, Friday, at 10:30 in the morning for a game in western Massachusetts, about three hours’ drive away. They’ll miss classes for the rest of the day. Kickoff for their game is at 1:30 p.m. Tomorrow.
As a faculty member, I get a bit grumpy when presented with a situation like that. The game is the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association regional tournament, and NCAA rules say that visiting teams get an hour of practice on the host field the day before the game, to get used to the field conditions. To our coach’s credit, he took the last possible practice slot today, so his team could stay on campus until the last possible moment. But still they will be missing classes, not to play a game but to test field conditions. And this is Division III.
I can’t expect our coach to pass up the opportunity offered his team. How can he be the only coach in the tournament to say, “I’m sorry. My team needs to attend their Friday classes, so we’ll forego the practice and take our chances on the day of the game.” If all the other teams arrive on Friday for practice, our team would look ridiculous passing up that chance. After all, the coach’s job is to do the best he can by his team, to prepare them as well as he can, to put them in the best possible position to go as far as they can in the postseason.
And therein lies the problem. The postseason. Even before I became the NCAA Faculty Athletic Representative on my campus, with the job of serving as a liaison between athletics and academics, I noticed that most faculty problems with teams (my own included) came to a head around issues of the postseason. During the season, students work out their course schedules and competition schedules in relation to each other. They avoid taking afternoon classes on the days their games are scheduled, and on a campus like mine, that’s not usually a problem. Often students can take a required class during the semester they’re not “in season,” and schedules generally conform to a Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday grid, so students do have the option for afternoon classes two days a week.
But when it comes to the NCAA tournament, all that careful planning by coaches, students, and advisors goes out the window. Sports that might, in a best-case scenario, have been only complementary to classes suddenly take precedence. Teams travel greater distances, miss classes, ask for extensions on coursework and, because the tournaments take place at the tail ends of semesters, have to reschedule final exams. Sometimes this intensity conflicts with the students’ ability to balance academics and athletics in their lives. One team on my campus had to miss an opportunity to compete in a national tournament when a couple of its players chose to attend class instead of traveling to the tournament. Because those athletes opted to miss the tournament, the team could not compete.
Such a choice is very difficult for a young student to make -- how do you weigh the opportunity of a championship in your sport, and the hopes of your coach and team, against the expectations of your professors? Of course, many factors go into such decisions, such as how many classes a sport has already required you to miss in a given semester, how much a professor penalizes absences, and whether the student sees the class or the relationship with the professor as important for her or his future. But in the end, professor and coach will have opposing interests in the student’s decision, and the student knows that.
Preventing the need for such decisions should be the business of all those with a stake in athletics in higher education. That’s why postseason tournaments, especially for Division III, whose members offer no athletic scholarships, should be eliminated. Conference titles should be plenty in Division III. Other co-curricular activities in which students engage -- student government, theater, and the like, do not, as a rule, build conflicts with academic priorities into their structure. Students who prioritize such activities over their classes do so on their own, not because the institution demands it. Can we say that about the institution of college athletics?
I don’t kid myself that Division III would ever choose to eliminate national championships. There’s no turning back at this point -- the pressure from alums, from high school players and their parents, and even from admissions offices is too strong.
Teams can, of course, opt out of postseason play or say no to the opportunity for those day-before practice sessions. But the entire culture of athletic competition discourages coaches and teams from making such choices. How can a coach put his or her team at a disadvantage in a national tournament? Coaches in Division III are rarely faculty members themselves. At my own institution, coaches were part-time employees of the college back when I was hired in the early 1990s. Now almost all head coaches and some assistant coaches work full-time here. They may do some of their work in another office on campus (the student life office, the registrar’s office, etc.), but they were hired for their coaching. The coach identifies with the athletics program, and it should be no surprise, and is in fact no crime, when the coach puts sports priorities first.
That’s why I find it encouraging that Division III college presidents are increasingly involved in decision-making about athletics. If presidents as well as professors, folks from outside the athletics office on each campus, see themselves as having a stake in college athletics, then decisions about athletics will be more balanced. Small changes in culture can be made, campus by campus, conference by conference.
But change won’t happen if we faculty members are content simply to complain when a student wants to miss a class for a tournament. We should understand the structure and get involved in the decision-making much earlier. We need to recognize how athletic culture works on a national level and a local level and be prepared to work with it and challenge it to make sure athletics and academics are in balance at or institutions and in our conferences. Students who are also athletes should, after all, see their college experience in terms of semesters, not just seasons.