Small College Reliance On Varsity Sports

Small College Reliance On Varsity Sports

We’ve made it through another off-season: baseball is back. Unlike the formidable bursts of action in football or time-limited-and-load-managed efforts to put basketballs and hockey pucks in nets, baseball is a microcosm of humanity. Over the course of the ~25,000 innings that constitute the baseball season, interactions among the 10-13 players on the field – plus exchanges with umpires, coaches, and fans – are nearly as varied as life itself. Which is to say, strange things happen more often than you think. Most are easily explained by informed fans, such as why a fly ball that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head and over the fence was a home run, why George Brett’s likely game-winning homer turned into an out because he had too much pine tar on his bat, or why two Cubs were simultaneously in the batter’s box facing Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabowsky. But baseball is also replete with unsolved mysteries. Like how Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD. Or why the Chicago White Sox decided to hold Disco Demolition Night in between the games of a doubleheader, resulting in a huge hole in the outfield, a riot, and a forfeit. Or when a massive sack of flour inexplicably fell out of the sky and splattered on the infield at Dodger Stadium, nearly killing Cincinnati Reds shortstop Woody Woodward.

It was September 6, 1971, a Saturday night game between the L.A. Dodgers and the prior year’s National League champion Cincinnati Reds. The Dodgers were leading in the bottom of the 5th inning when their fastest player, second baseman Maury Wills, got on base. With Wills on second and always a risk to steal, shortstop Woody Woodward jogged back to the bag to keep him honest. And that’s when it happened. Out of the corner of his eye Woodward saw a white flash and – BOOM – the sack of flour impacted and exploded right where he’d been standing, turning the pristine Dodger Stadium infield white. “It sounded like a ton of bricks when it hit,” said the shaken shortstop. Other descriptions included a “giant slap” (from the press box) and “mortar shell” (the Reds pitcher).

Where did the flour come from? The FAA reported no planes flying overhead at the time. Some speculated a catapult from the capacious Dodger Stadium parking lot; there’s no way the flour could have been thrown or launched from the stands. Observers could only agree on three things: (1) the flour would have killed Woodward if he hadn’t been covering second base; (2) Woodward helped end the inning by turning a double play; and (3) Woodward kept glancing skyward the rest of the game.

The flour bomb wasn’t the only unsolved mystery that night. After the grounds crew cleared the flour off the infield and the game was ready to resume, the umpire ordered another pause: a chicken was running loose in right field. No word on whether the chicken’s appearance explains the falling flour as an attempt at fried chicken gone awry.

Here’s another unsolved sports mystery: how is it that small colleges continue to get away with abusing varsity athletics to juice enrollment?

Of the 500,000 varsity athletes at American colleges, about 65% attend small schools like Fairleigh Dickinson, Lewis & Clark, and University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The NCAA’s Division III (D-III) is a long way from controversies like name, image, and likeness payments, conference realignment, and unionization roiling big-time college sports. D-III is a long way from big-time college sports, period. The nearly 500 D-III schools average fewer than 1,700 students and break down 80/20 private/public. In addition, there are 250 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) schools; NAIA is an NCAA-alternative for even smaller colleges (average 1,400 students). Shrinking aside, the biggest enrollment trend at D-III and NAIA schools is increasing dependence on varsity sports: in the past generation the number of varsity athletes at D-III institutions has grown over 50% to an average of 463 per school, meaning 27% of students at these schools are recruited athletes.

Per the NCAA, D-III schools can’t offer full-ride athletic scholarships like their Division I brethren. But it’s a similar set-up: students are recruited by coaches and lured with grants, which are really just discounts (coaches have to live within allotted grant budgets to fill their teams). So at schools like Michigan’s Adrian College, average net tuition paid by athletes is $16K vs. $40K list price. But $16K per student adds up when, as at Adrian, 70% of students play varsity sports, or at Louisiana’s Centenary College where 60% are recruited athletes. At University of Lynchburg and many D-III schools, incoming classes are ”frequently more than 45% student-athletes.” The bottom line, as the Chronicle of Higher Education concluded in its recent special report The Athletics Advantage: How Intercollegiate Sports Can Rejuvenate D-III Colleges, is “more athletes equals more income.”

Before we get into it, let me start by saying that I love sports and believe team sports impart critical skills. A host of studies demonstrate the value of sports to initiative, leadership, perseverance, and teamwork. And some show a correlation between varsity athletics and career outcomes e.g., making more money, more MBAs (but not PhDs, MDs, or advanced STEM degrees). Fellow education curmudgeon Rick Hess thinks team sports “are the single best thing I can think of for the healthy development of kids.” All three of my boys are on teams at their middle and high schools. But the big unanswered question is this: in enrolling class after class of varsity athletes, are small schools doing the right thing for students?

There are two prongs to the small school sports strategy. First, inflating team size. Unlike Division I and II schools, neither D-III nor NAIA limits the number of students on each team. So at D-III schools, baseball rosters have swelled from 24 in the 1980s to 40 today. Football teams boast 108, up from 69. Tennis teams have grown from 20 to 32. The top six men’s sports (baseball, football, basketball, soccer, volleyball, and lacrosse) have increased team size by 42%. University of Lynchburg has 51 players on both its baseball and men’s lacrosse teams. That means more players practicing but not getting much playing time.

The second prong is troubling for different reasons: adding sports which are novel at the collegiate level and likely at the high school level as well. A number of colleges have added football variants like sprint football (men under 180 lbs.) and flag football (women). Beach volleyball and water polo are major new women’s sports with teams averaging 16 students. So is acrobatics and tumbling (21 per team) and STUNT, “an NCAA emerging sport for women” derived from cheerleading (also 21 per team). Rugby is now a major sport for both men (31) and women (19), as is equestrian; University of Lynchburg has 46 students on its men’s equestrian team. Then there are pseudo-sports like bowling (92 small schools) and cornhole; so many small colleges have launched varsity cornhole teams that the American Cornhole League has added a college division.

NAIA sells a Return on Athletics resource to help member institutions target fast-growing youth sports which may not be played at the high school level but could nonetheless attract students. This is how colleges like Adrian have added 30 new sports in the past two decades including three levels of men’s ice hockey and a cornucopia of new women’s teams: acrobatics and tumbling, dance, cheerleading, equestrian, figure skating (35 members), and synchronized skating (46). Adrian College now has 49 varsity teams and nearly as many full-time coaches as tenured faculty.

Then there’s eSports. Of everything I’ve written in the past decade, the piece that caused the greatest uproar was my take on eSports, which was simply this: playing a video game is not a sport. (Apparently I’m that out of touch.) More than 100 colleges haven’t hesitated to launch eSports teams and lure avid gamers as varsity athletes. Today’s average collegiate eSports team boasts 24 students.

The result is schools like Adrian, Centenary, Kentucky’s Transylvania University where 52% of students are varsity athletes (up from 25% a decade ago) and Missouri’s William Woods University which has added seven new teams in the last two years. The Chronicle special report surveyed administrators and athletic directors to ask what would happen to these small schools without the ability to recruit students as varsity athletes. The responses made them sound like Donald Trump at a MAGA rally: “catastrophic,” “devastating,” and “would not survive.”

Some critics have charged that sports juicing is ineffective because colleges like Finlandia (63% varsity athletes) and Birmingham Southern (51%) have closed, and Wisconsin’s Northland College (42%) is about to do the same. But this doesn’t mean the strategy isn’t working; enrollment could have fallen further, faster without sports juicing. The real problem is that small colleges aren’t being honest with recruits. In major sports, they’re not being honest about playing time. For new teams, they’re not being honest about the novelty of the sport. More important, by preying on the hopes of students who want to continue playing their sport in college – as well as parents intent on justifying the ample investment of time and money in their child’s sport, or who want to be able to boast about their wünderkind college athlete – they’re not setting up students for success.

When asked about their primary purpose in college, most students say something like learning, doing well in classes, and getting good grades to the end of getting a good job and successful career launch. Extracurricular activities are extra – enriching, but clearly on the side. But students recruited as varsity athletes are much more likely to answer differently. Researchers have found that D-III varsity athletes often have an “athletics first” mentality. I get it; it’s hard to have two priorities. So as to the question of what’s your main and what’s on the side, students recruited to varsity teams are more likely to be confused. This confusion is understandable given the many accoutrements and ornaments showered on varsity athletes, from access to special athletic, dining, and residential facilities, to travel, to academic support and accommodations, to free apparel, to the opportunity to compete for conference and national championships. They all matter because matriculating students will make thousands of decisions on how to allocate time and effort in college and each additional reminder of their special status helps justify prioritizing sport over preparing for a midterm, applying for an internship, studying abroad, or even participating in extracurricular activities offering different experiences and skills.

Small schools are already at a disadvantage due to lack of economies of scale, single (tuition) revenue stream, and debt from building facilities. As enrollment pressures intensify – near term from the FAFSA disaster, longer term from the demographic cliff and eroding affordability-employability value proposition – for schools where a swing of ten students can make the difference between an additional hire and budget cuts, for schools where surviving another year is winning, it seems inevitable that many more will double down on varsity sports. More athletes is an easier answer than convincing faculty to align academic programs and curricula with entry-level job requirements, let alone fundamentally differentiating the institution from hundreds of other schools sharing every major characteristic save geographic location.

What will happen to these student-athletes? While research supports stronger career outcomes for varsity athletes of yesteryear, there are no studies on what’s happening to the 32nd player on the women’s tennis team, the 98th player on the football team, or the entire sprint football, STUNT, or eSports teams. But we’ll surely find out, because in making varsity sports a primary enrollment strategy, small colleges are running an unethical experiment with tens of thousands of students.

A more ethical approach would be to expand club sports. As clubs are on par with other extracurriculars, they send fewer confusing signals and are less likely to distort priorities. But while small schools aren’t prohibited from awarding grants/discounts to club sports athletes, students (and parents) are less likely to enroll to play a club sport. This logic explains why few colleges field junior varsity teams in major sports; most students (and parents) are varsity or bust. (They’re also less likely to enroll to play on a losing team, amplifying the need for sports-dependent small colleges to invest in athletic rather than student success if they wish to reap recruitment rewards.)

Bass fishing is a club sport at hundreds of colleges – ironically safe from varsity treatment because students prioritize free gear, sponsorships, and prize money over varsity status. (Although this hasn’t stopped Adrian College from launching a varsity bass fishing team.) So while bass fishing might seem an odd sport – my 13-year-old just asked if participants are penalized for catching fish other than bass – anyone interested in higher education integrity and student success should prefer club sports like bass fishing and even eSports clubs to Adrian College recruiting 46 students for its synchronized skating team.

As more small schools follow Adrian down the varsity sports rabbit hole, we should be deeply concerned that the many benefits of team sports will be overwhelmed by negative outcomes for tens of thousands of additional student-athletes. Perhaps these new athletes won’t be as likely to persist and graduate; the Chronicle report cites an unnamed D-III football team with 90 freshmen, only 33 of whom returned for sophomore year. Maybe all the time and energy spent practicing, playing, and just being varsity athletes – particularly for new sports hiring managers don’t understand or haven’t heard of – will leave them even more susceptible to underemployment. There’s also a risk that sub-par college experiences will cause a falling out with the sports they love.

Why didn’t we ever find out how a massive sack of flour nearly killed Cincinnati’s shortstop? Many believe it was because the Dodgers wanted to bury the incident for fear of copycat flour. Likewise, don’t expect small colleges to lead the way on researching and reporting outcomes for their many marginal student-athletes. The big difference is that when the small colleges madly enrolling majority-varsity-athlete classes this month eventually, inevitably experience the enrollment equivalent of a flour bomb falling from the sky, it will be the opposite of inexplicable.

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