The NCAA is bad, most of the time: Learning to stop worrying and love Division III

| Staff Reporter

You may or may not know this, but the NCAA is not a perfect organization. In case you need a refresher, the basic complaint is this: American universities make billions of dollars off of TV rights and tickets and merchandise and branding while not paying the actual athletes who play the games a single cent, and many people have pointed out that this seems pretty unfair.

To make matters worse, the good people at the National Collegiate Athletic Association love doing things that seem genuinely mean-spirited, like canceling beloved football and basketball video games out of fear that a court battle over player likenesses might force them to start paying the players. Last week the NCAA came down on California Polytechnic because it gave students too much money to pay for textbooks, which is a profoundly poor reason to punish a school.

Part of the reason the system is so exploitative and broken is that the NCAA—especially on the Division I level—is trying to be two things at once. On one level it is basically professional sports, held in huge arenas with exorbitant ticket prices and sleek TV productions. At the same time, the NCAA wants you to think the participants in these essentially professional sporting events are also regular students grinding out papers and study guides at the library.

All this is a roundabout way to say that as a sports fan and an occasional sports journalist, I am glad that I went to a Division III school.

This isn’t to say that Division III is perfect. Washington University athletes, for example, are still subject to the arcane and extremely confusing rules about what kind of apparel they are and are not allowed to hold onto after the school year. Again, if the NCAA is involved, nothing is going to be perfect.

But Division III, for the most part, does not have any of the pretensions of professionalism that ruin Division I. That’s not to say the people who run Wash. U. sports aren’t professional—everyone employed by the athletic department is incredibly good at their job—but there is so much less money at stake that so many of the things that ruin college sports in general are more or less gone at the Division III level.

And the lack of flash and polish and ESPN crews actually makes everything so much more fun. I think the thing that makes Division III sports great is accessibility: Washington University has one of the best athletic programs in Division III, and you can get in the building to see every single one of their games for free. The women’s soccer team had a historically great season in 2018, and not one student had to pay a single time in admissions.

The fact that Washington University sports take place on campus in very nice if unspectacular facilities means that college sports feel like college sports, and not the weird amalgamation of college and professional sports that happen at places like Duke or Alabama. The sports do not have any of the overblown hype of Division I games, which in turns means that to watch Wash. U. play, you don’t have to tune into a TV broadcast which made the school $250 million that will never make its way to the pockets of the athletes themselves.

Wash. U. sports games—which are very exciting and very competitive, by the way—are played on campus and not 20 minutes away in a superdome. The varsity athletes have locker rooms in the same place where regular students play pickup basketball, and all of these things mean that sports are more meshed into the school community than put on a separate pedestal (the way that athletes at Division I schools live in separate dorms and live entirely separate lives from regular students).

On a purely selfish level, the lower stakes of Division III meant that I was basically able to pretend to be a real journalist way before I should have been. On my first ever assignment for Student Life, I just kind of walked onto Francis Field after the football team beat Berry and interviewed the head coach, the quarterback and the defensive back who reeled in the game winning interception. That was really cool, and not something that I would have been able to do if Wash. U. pretended it was the NFL the way an SEC school would.

Overall, I think my point is that I appreciate that Division III sports know what they are in a way that Division I sports don’t. Because the fact is that we go to a school where a relatively high level of athletics is easily accessible, and we don’t have a weird class of semi-professional students who are only here because they are forced to wait to sign a professional contract.

Division III sports are not perfect—nothing is, and especially not any collegiate sport. But they are very, very good, and as nice as it would be to have College Game Day roll through every once in a while, the fact that Wash. U. is Division III does not make it a worse school.

It just might make it better.

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