Another kind of college sports

A statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. Pennsylvania State University topped a year of scandals in college athletics.
A statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. Pennsylvania State University topped a year of scandals in college athletics. (Associated Press)
Posted: December 16, 2011

Many believe that liberal-arts colleges, which typically play sports at the Division III level, do not especially value athletics. We're therefore seen as having nothing practical to contribute to the national debate about the problems of high-profile, high-revenue, Division I college sports - including unethical behavior among coaches and boosters, erosion of academic values, special treatment of players, and cutthroat competition among the major conferences.

In fact, we are living the solution to these problems every day.

Colleges like Franklin and Marshall, Haverford, and Wesleyan aim to further the intellectual growth of all our students in a climate of high achievement and individual responsibility. In that context, we appreciate the educational value of competitive sports and structure our athletic programs to maximize their contribution to learning.

We understand that playing a sport develops qualities that are vital in the classroom as well as on the field: hard work, resilience, cooperation, respect for others, and leadership. Sports encourage students to do what they love and share their passion with others. Student-athletes have to learn to balance their commitments. Through competition, a fact of adult professional life, they become more goal-oriented. They learn the cycle of preparation, performance, and self-critique; they learn to be taught. And they learn that no defeat is final, because there is always a chance to compete again.

Colleges competing in Division III encounter the same tensions between their academic and athletic enterprises that Division I schools do, though to a lesser degree. We have athletics budgets to balance, facilities to maintain, coaches to compensate, and admissions processes to run. We also know that competitive athletic programs can increase applications as well as alumni engagement and donations, key indicators of our success.

As liberal-arts colleges balance these tensions, though, we make a conscious choice to recommit ourselves to our core educational values: learning, integrity, hard work, and respect for each student as an individual.

What enables us to do so? Without a doubt, the relative modesty of our athletic budgets helps. They aren't based on television contracts, postseason payouts, and ticket sales, which encourage winning at any cost. That helps ensure that we don't misplace our priorities, decrease transparency, or lose institutional control over athletic programs.

More important, however, we maintain a climate in which our educational mission is clear and viscerally understood by everyone, and in which we hold ourselves and each other accountable to that mission. Liberal-arts colleges have a lot to teach sports-revenue-driven institutions about inculcating that climate of achievement and accountability, and about leveraging the educational power of the student-athlete experience.

At Franklin and Marshall, for example, we created a new leadership program that helps students draw explicit lessons from sports. We're also designing a seminar to help our coaches - who are educators first - enrich their understanding of student development and learning. And we're finding new ways to engage student-athletes in community service, capitalizing on and nurturing the bonds among teammates.

Why does our experience apply to to the crisis in Division I athletics? Because the way we value athletics - as a resource for learning, complementary to and supportive of the core academic mission - is also the best way to maintain institutional control of the athletic enterprise.

Furthermore, because we aren't dependent on the commercial interests associated with high-visibility athletics, we are free to actively promote student engagement in athletics. Liberal-arts colleges typically field more teams and have proportionately more varsity athletes than universities with high-profile sports programs. So we are engaging more young people in amateur athletics and helping them learn more from the experience.

The ideal of the scholar-athlete, always striving for a "personal best," is one of the most powerful in American culture. It inspires children to dream of college long before they know what they want to study. This ideal is not beyond the grasp of every higher education institution, and we owe it to our students to work harder to achieve it.


Dan Porterfield is the president of Franklin and Marshall College. He previously served in a range of administrative roles at Georgetown University, including interim athletic director.

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