College Athletics: More than Spectator Sports

President's Perspective

November 2011

The national spotlight on college athletics suggests that being a scholar and an athlete are mutually exclusive options. That’s not true at Ursinus.

It is no accident that the College’s all-time field hockey goal scorer and a leader of this fall’s “final four” team, Alyssa Thren, maintains a 3.6 GPA, and was a Summer Research Fellow. Or that middle linebacker Greg Martell, selected Centennial Conference Defensive Player of the Year, is also on the Fall Conference Academic Honor Roll for the third consecutive year. He is a Business and Economics and Mathematics double major and also a Summer Research Fellow. These two epitomize our scholar/athletes.

The Division III ethos is that sports enhance the student experience but should never be at the heart of the student experience. Athletes are students first. By the same token, their athletic achievements are equivalent to those working in the labs, performing on stage, or writing poetry. These are complementary pathways for the development of intellectual maturity and personal character.

Athletics should be seen as an opportunity for developing leadership skills and character traits such as persistence, discipline, and working for the good of the whole rather than just for oneself. Being a member of a team is a practicum in building community. As you might know, I spent 10 years as president of a Division I institution, Butler University in Indianapolis, where the men’s basketball team went to the Championship Game in both 2009 and in 2010. Yet for all the glory, what will remain, I told the players, is that they “forged a bond with one another that will never be broken. …. It’s not simply about records; it’s about being there for one another, knowing that each teammate could be trusted to play his role.”

In Division III, student athletes don’t receive scholarships merely for playing a sport. The NCAA defines Division III this way:

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.—See the NCAA web site.

Many Division I conferences average fewer intercollegiate sports than Division III liberal arts colleges, and the percentage of the undergraduate student body participating in intercollegiate athletics would be in the low single digits. At Ursinus, we have 25 varsity sports, and a third of the student body participates in intercollegiate athletics. Athletic Director Laura Moliken calculates that of the current 1,743 Ursinus students, 27 percent of the 925 females and 42 percent of the 818 males are student-athletes.

In addition to varsity sports, we have club sports, including fencing, martial arts, rollerblading, rugby, soccer, and table tennis; and intramural sports such as ultimate Frisbee, running, and water polo. Taken altogether, only some 15 percent of our students do not participate in some kind of athletic activity.

I exercise mornings in the Floy Lewis Bakes fitness center, and I am impressed by the swimmers, lacrosse players, wrestlers, and others who are in early working out with me before they go to class. There are many of them because the opportunities for participating are so plentiful here.

At Ursinus athletics events, you are rooting not only for the team, but for your friends, the students with whom you do community service, with whom you study and hang out, with whom you perform in The Kaleidoscope, and with whom you sit at a table in Wismer.

When I was interviewed upon announcing I was coming to Ursinus College, The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that my insistence that academics and athletics have to be compatible is already a given here.

Athletics can be the front porch of a college, and a successful athletic program can bring a lot of people to look inside the house, but it is what they see inside that matters. It’s important to regard athletics as a part of the educational enterprise of the college. I think Ursinus has gotten it absolutely right.

Go Bears!

Bobby Fong

President, Ursinus College

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