It seems that every year about this time we go through the same thing… numerous “sources” leak a story about a big-time Division I college football team. The headlines are always the same – “BCS contender under fire for inappropriate behavior,” “Hopes for undefeated season for (insert big school’s name here) in shambles after star player suspended,” and “NCAA to investigate possible infractions by Heisman winner which would erase all of last season’s wins and Bowl title.” OK, that last one was a little wordy, but you get the idea. As more time passes, it’s headlines like these that make me glad I wasn’t gifted enough to play at that level.
Allow me to put things in perspective for you. I’ve been a jock my entire life, even though I might not look like it much these days. I was a sprinter/hurdler on the track team since 1st grade and joined the football team as a wide receiver as a sophomore in high school. Needless to say, I could run pretty fast for a white kid. Even though I was all-league every year on the track and our football team went to the state playoffs each year I played, I was not your “typical jock.” I got it done in the classroom first and foremost. I was never a straight-A student (well, maybe in grade school – but who wasn’t?), but I pulled high enough marks to get accepted to Denison University, one of the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the entire country. Out of 215 students in my graduating class, the only other person who was accepted there was our Valedictorian. I certainly don’t consider myself a genius but I’d like to think my parents have invested wisely in my education. Being wiser than my years at the time, I knew damn well that I wasn’t going to make a living as an athlete after high school.
With that realization and understanding firmly planted in my head, I had come to grips with the notion that I might never get to play either sport that I loved at a varsity level again. In fact, playing sports in college was such a distant thought in my head that when the Denison football coach called me and personally asked for a highlight tape I had to think to myself, “Why would he want to see a 30-second video?” Lo and behold, he wanted me to come out for the team anyway – as did the track coach once he got his hands on my resume. Four years later and once again I was all-conference in both sports.
I’m not writing all this to toot my own horn about my past athletic achievements. It was a Division III school/conference, after all. Does anyone stand around the water cooler and talk about the D-III football championship from this past weekend? Did you even know the D-III championship was taking place last weekend? Me neither. You see, Division III schools are not allowed to give athletic scholarships. Also, under NCAA rules, D-III schools "shall not award financial aid to any student on the basis of athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance". Financial aid given to athletes must be awarded under the same procedures as for the general student body, and the proportion of total financial aid given to athletes "shall be closely equivalent to the percentage of student-athletes within the student body."
You see where I’m going with all this? D-III schools aren’t allowed to give purely athletic-based scholarships like the big D-I schools can. So any 5-star athlete with less than stellar grades who can’t afford full tuition is out of luck. Now I’m not saying that athletic ability and intelligence are inversely correlated (as shown by my personal example above)… but as we all know, the last few Heisman winners haven’t exactly gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
This inherent difference makes the athletic culture between the divisions contrast so starkly that I begin to wonder if they both can really be considered “college athletics.” I’ve mentioned before that my father played D-I basketball at Ole Miss on a full-ride scholarship, and he’s told me stories that make me just shake my head in disbelief. But as more of these same headlines appear in the paper, I realize that he wasn’t just telling tall tales all those years.
Based on the stories I’ve read, if you’re a D-I scholarship football player you basically get every need catered to. If you’re not the brightest crayon in the box, they have tailor-made majors to help you stay eligible. A little short on cash this week? Just call John Q. Booster and he’ll slip you a couple C notes in a sealed envelope in the locker room after the game. Need a little Mary Jane to get you through “mid-terms” but afraid of failing the random drug tests? Don’t worry, Billy Horn-rimmed over here will pee in a cup for you. We’ll have to be careful though – his ADHD medicine is banned by the NCAA too, so we’ll have to file paperwork stating that you take it to manage your anxiety.
I’ve read it all – envelopes in lockers stuffed with cash prorated based on game-day performances; team “aides” who write term papers for the lineman who can’t spell; sexy co-eds doing unspeakable things with recruits (who are still in high school mind you) while they are on campus for a visit; drug dealers (both illicit and prescription) on assistant coaches’ speed dial; professors getting brow-beaten by team “handlers” to ensure they pass certain players to keep them eligible; class notes taken for players who miss class (either due to laziness or team travel); assistant coaches assigned with ensuring you’re sticking to your diet; free sports drinks and supplements from the trainers; world-class facilities and chartered flights for all away games (not to mention luxury hotel accommodations); and more cover-ups than you can imagine. Basically anything you can think of to keep the players happy and eligible was the status quo.
The moral of the story is that the blatant disregard for the rules (and common decency) by the coaches and administrators sets the example for the players to emulate. Those in positions of power seem to forget how impressionable their players still are at that age. Most of them are still teenagers – and I’m sure everyone reading this can think back to how dumb we all were at that age. The higher-ups in the big schools are basically setting a precedent and the players look at it and say to themselves, “Well, if those in charge of enforcing the rules don’t have to follow them, then neither do I.”
Before I go all OG (old guy) and tell you how it was “back in my day,” I understand that there are certain limitations placed on schools that don’t offer athletic scholarships. The idea behind it all is that these schools (like mine) operate their athletic programs with the understanding that they are not revenue generating. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t expect a D-III school to have an athletic complex that rivals the Space Station. I will tell you this though… the life of a D-III athlete was far from glamorous.
The only person I could count on to take notes for me in class was me. I don’t even need all my fingers and toes to count the number of classes I missed in four years of college. Some people can’t even say that for a single semester. No aides followed me around making sure I went to class or that I was getting plenty of calories and fluids. I had to practically beg the trainers just to let me fill up an ice bath after two-a-day practices. And there were certainly no free Gatorades or supplements to be found anywhere. I’d like to think that I’m somewhat of a decent-looking guy, but I certainly never got the attention from the ladies that the big recruits do. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I met a single female on my recruiting visit. Drugs (of any kind) have never been my thing, but if they were I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask my coach where to find them… the man came to my wedding for Pete’s sake. Believe it or not, instead of getting preferential treatment from professors for being a jock, we actually got treated worse. Not only did they peg us as being meat-headed football players, but we actually had to produce written permission slips from our coach if we had to miss class due to team travel. That of course meant boarding a chartered Greyhound and driving 6-8 hours to our next opponent. And we weren’t staying at the Hilton before game days, either. After long days of class followed by practice followed by a lifting session followed by dinner, it wasn’t chill time with the Xbox until midnight for me… it was the library. My professors didn’t care that my weekend was basically shot due to Saturday games and Sunday practice/lifting/films – that friggin’ paper was due on Monday whether you liked it or not. There were no easy majors because at a liberal arts college you pretty much major in everything. There were no bounty systems, no shifty boosters, no pay-for-play envelopes stuffed with cash – heck, there was no cash period. Just like a college student should be…
I want to reiterate that my point here is not to come off as holier than thou because I “did it the hard way”, but more so to express how grateful I am to have not had to worry about all the shadiness that takes place inside a D-I school’s locker room. Even though I had to bust my arse day in and day out to participate in two sports that I love, I never had to worry about breaking any rules. I knew all the while that I was never getting special treatment in the classroom just because of what I could accomplish on the field (or the track)… and my professors made sure I knew that. I’m proud to be able to say that everyone I call a former teammate and I played the sport for the love of the game. Not because it was our meal ticket or because it was the only chance we had at a college education. Too many of the D-I athletes can’t say that same thing, and I say my thanks every time I see one of those headlines appear in the newspaper.