Why Washington University should consider starting a Division I basketball program

| Staff Columnist

College athletics, particularly basketball and football, were my main source of entertainment during the duller moments of winter break. While I enjoyed and appreciated the great skills of the players and coaches, I never had an avid interest in who won each game. In one instance, I watched an Illinois-versus-Northwestern basketball game with friends from both universities. I sat there not knowing who to root for as each of my friends cheered on their respective teams. This was a little bit saddening and turned frustrating as the games drew on. In my frustration I began asking myself the question: Why is Wash. U. not involved in the excitement that is Division I athletics?

(Becky Zhao | Student Life)

(Becky Zhao | Student Life)


When it comes to whether Wash. U. should establish a Division I program, there are two questions: Why, and how? I will address the “Why?” question first. While I do not aim to offend our Division III student athletes, there is simply no comparison between Division I and Division III athletics. One needs only to watch an episode of SportsCenter and attend a Wash. U. football game to know that. All the glamour, glory and, yes, money is in Division I athletics. There are many benefits of a Division I program, benefits in areas that I would argue Wash. U. is sadly lacking. These benefits include increased school spirit, increased alumni involvement and better national name recognition, among others. There can be no argument that certain schools are nationally well known because of their successful athletic programs. Recent examples that come to mind include Davidson College and Appalachian State, universities few would know of if not for their recent athletic successes. Increased name recognition positively impacts universities, particularly when attracting applicants and donations. By watching, and especially attending, other universities’ athletic events, I know firsthand how much school spirit and pride a successful sports team can generate. This spirit would linger even in alumni’s hearts and minds. For these reasons and others, there can be little doubt of the serious upside of having a competitive athletic program.

Detractors from Division I sports programs might argue that Division I programs come at the expense of academic excellence. The argument goes that sports programs require admitting unqualified students and are bound to drag down a school’s academic reputation. I would refer any such detractors to the examples of Stanford and Duke, two prestigious private research institutions that share many characteristics with Wash. U. in addition to supporting perennially successful sports programs. In addition to those who say sports come at the expense of academics, others will point to the ugly aspects of Division I athletics, including the recruiting scandals and other unethical behavior that plague certain Division I sports programs. But one advantage Wash. U. would have as a newcomer to Division I athletics is the ability to take precautions against scandals from day one, preventing the systemic ethical breakdowns that have plagued other NCAA Division I schools.

Now to the question of “How?” While starting a Division I program is a lofty proposition, there is an established first step that Wash. U. could take toward such a goal. That step would be to start men’s and women’s Division I basketball programs. Why basketball? The answer is simple: with only about 10 scholarships and some salary money set aside for good coaches, a school can literally buy itself a quality Division I basketball program. This would allow Wash. U. to begin accruing quite a few of the benefits of a Division I program described earlier, at minimal cost. By taking this step, Wash. U. would, in a sense, get its feet wet and provide incentive to invest in a top-division athletics program.

While I recognize that this proposal may seem difficult, it is far from unattainable. Division I athletics at Wash. U. will not happen before I graduate and may never happen at all, but I hope to at least plant a seed in students’ minds. The more this vision is discussed, debated and tossed about, the more likely it is to come to fruition. So when you are enjoying Division I athletics in the future, keep asking the question: Why not us?

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