The Benefit of Division III Athletics

Photo via Vassar Athletics

By Nicholai Babis

When you hear someone talk about ‘college football’ or ‘college basketball,’ your mind probably goes straight to Division I. This makes sense, because often it is the only televised division of college sports. It’s full of really talented student-athletes, many on significant scholarship, who are in essence an entertainment industry for sports fans across the country.

An oft-overlooked side to college sports is Division III athletics. Before going to college, I had only a hazy conceptualization of DIII sports—all I knew (or thought I knew) was that it was the division with ‘bad sports.’ I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy watching them.

My perception was wrong, however. Of course, by and large, DI sports teams could trample a DIII team in the same sport; DIII programs just don’t have the absurd endowments and booster programs that DI teams do.

Despite this, several sports at my school—Vassar College—perform at a very high level in Division III, and in truth, there are other factors that separate DI and DIII sports, most of them positive.

There is no outstanding benefit to being on a sports team at Vassar. The athletes come in knowing they will not have a scholarship for sports because in DIII athletics they’re not allowed.

Vassar scholarships are almost exclusively need-based, so the large portion of the endowment at a DI school that goes to athletic scholarships can be reapportioned to other aspects of the college.

An athlete at Vassar does not need to worry about not being able to attend the school because of not receiving a scholarship for sports, however. According to the Princeton Review, Vassar is the top school in the nation for financial aid. Many other small DIII schools have comparable need-based admissions programs.

Along the same vein, athletes do not receive absurd preferential treatment for admissions. Vassar is a great school with a lot to offer academically, even though it is slightly easier to be admitted as an athlete,  it still has strict admissions guidelines whether one is an athlete or not.

This makes sure that every student at the school meets Vassar’s criteria for academic excellence, which is sometimes a lacking quality in bigger DI schools. I’m sure everyone remembers a couple years ago when it was uncovered that UNC allowed over 3,000 students to take fraudulent classes in order to graduate.


The UNC Football Program Was Accused of Taking These “Paper Classes”

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Half of these students turned out to be athletes, and these classes existed to make sure they met the baseline GPA requirement to keep playing their sport. Some coaches at UNC were fully aware of the scandal, and all evidence points to the fact that this went on for years.

Why is this happening? Because DI sports are a business. Many former athletes are critical of the NCAA for allowing athletes to basically be figureheads for colleges.

Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon stated in 2014 that “I was an athlete masquerading as a student … I was there strictly to play basketball. I did, basically, the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could play.”

Many athletes from different programs have come out and said that they didn’t really attend classes or do anything more than the bare minimum. This simply does not happen in DIII athletics. There aren’t ‘easy classes’ that the whole football team takes (not that we have a football program, but many DIII schools do) to stay eligible.

The last thing I’m saying is that all DI schools have ‘paper classes’ like those at UNC. I’m sure that this sort of thing has only happened a handful of times, but athletes are often boosted along their 4 years of college so they can play the whole time.

There’s a stereotype that DI athletes don’t care about their classes and exclusively attend a school to play the sport. I don’t subscribe to this thought, even though it is likely to happen.

Oftentimes athletes aren’t even given the chance to have an academic experience. From the second they step on campus they have press conferences, away games, training camps, and more to attend. Practice takes up a huge portion of their time. TV appearances and cross country travel take them away from school during exam times and classes

It simply isn’t realistic to expect a college football or basketball player to be high-performing under these circumstances.

There’s no giant cash machine dictating the actions of Vassar’s athletics program, and there’s no great demand for continued achievement as a program. Alumni and boosters don’t funnel money continuously into our sports programs, and our games don’t show up on ESPN every week.

Perhaps the most important difference between DI and DIII sports is that once an athlete is enrolled there is no continued preferential treatment.

Firstly, athletes don’t get preference for course placement. Everyone at the school has the same chances of getting into classes, and there is a fair system of course choice and major placement for all students.

There is also no separate housing for athletes. They definitely don’t receive preference for housing, and can’t choose before the rest of the student body (as happens at many DI schools).

Importantly, there is also no all-athletic housing. No athletic village, no separate dining hall for athletes with much better food. The athletes on a DIII campus aren’t separated into their own dorms or villages with better housing than the rest of campus—they live among the rest of the students and integrate with their neighbors.

They also don’t constantly receive free stuff. DI athletes don’t get paid, but they get iPads, hoverboards, and other gifts.

There is also the case of athletes not finishing their degrees. At a DI school with a good football or basketball program, athletes often don’t finish their degrees before going off to the draft.


Jameis Winston Celebrating After Winning the National Championship (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Jameis Winston only spent 2 years at FSU before he went pro, and most students at a college will have barely even declared their major by the end of sophomore year. Clearly, his eyes weren’t on academics.

This raises the question of the value of an education. These DI athletes aren’t finishing their college degrees, and it’s clear that they are using it as simply a stepping stone on the way to professional athletics. However, for a DIII athlete, it is inconceivable for them to leave before their degree is complete.

One rebuttal to my statements here is that DIII is just different because the athletes aren’t close to being good enough for professional sports and that’s why their experiences are different.

In many cases this is true, but I would direct the reader to the good amount of DIII athletes who went pro. Next College Student Athlete has a good (but incomplete) list of DIII and NAIA athletes who ended up going pro.

Another more tangible case is Ali Marpet from Hobart College (in the same conference as Vassar—the Liberty League). Marpet starts on the O-line for the Tampa Bay Bucs and has been a great asset to the team. Clearly, some DIII athletes can still survive—and thrive—in the big leagues.


Ali Marpet Playing DIII Football (Courtesy of Hobart College Athletics)

My last critique of DI sports is a more serious point. There are countless cases (so many that I can’t get into all of them) of universities and university police departments offering criminal levels of protections to athletes going through the conduct process for sexual assault and other crimes.

The most prominent case is the recent case of Baylor football. (Baylor’s Rape Scandal May Just Be Getting Started)

The rape scandal involves 125 women, yet the football players received almost no punishment for their actions. Baylor coaches and staff flagrantly ignored Title IX laws and obfuscated evidence to protect the football program.

Another high-profile case was the case of Jameis Winston, who was accused of raping a fellow student at FSU during his freshman year of college.

His case went up and down the conduct process at FSU, went through the FSU police department (who bungled it and dragged their feet so badly that it had to go even higher up), and ultimately got mired in the purgatory of conduct cases.

Some semblance of the case is still being handled, but the point is that he was protected by the University to try and clear him. He was never questioned by the Police in Tallahassee, and the case did not become public until a year after the alleged incident. As of now, the case has been settled (with FSU paying the accuser almost a million dollars).

Obviously, sexual assault and violence occur among both athletes and nonathletes on DIII campuses, but the protection is almost non-existent on a campus like Vassar, as it should be. Athletes should not be treated any differently when it comes to prosecuting them under the law.

At the end of the day, I still like to catch a game of college football. I’m a lifelong FSU fan, and there’s nothing like seeing my team win a national championship.


Middle hitter Matt Knigge ’18, first-team All-American (Photos by Stockton Photo Inc.)

However, I think the often-overlooked passion of DIII athletes speaks for itself.

I’ve seen some amazing games here at Vassar. We have a #6 ranked men’s volleyball team, and some other impressive sports at the present moment. Our men’s soccer team went to the NCAA tournament this past season. DIII sports are still fun to watch and highly skilled.

Players play for the love of the game with all the prestige of the NCAA but none of the incentives from a big school, and that’s how all NCAA sports should be played. The second that we started seeing college athletics as an exploitable market, we did an injustice to all student athletes by jeopardizing their educations and the quality of their college experiences.

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