I recognize that college sports might not have the most favorable impression right now. In recent years, they have received their fair share of negative press. From allegations that the University of Louisville men’s basketball program hired escorts for recruits to the academic fraud case at UNC-Chapel Hill, critics of college sports have reason to cry foul. While those scandals are particularly appalling, other instances of wrong- doing plague the NCAA system. Reports of abuse, dishonesty, and corruption are frequent and concern numerous programs across the country.
Without a doubt, intercollegiate sports have become a behemoth enterprise across the country. The NCAA’s television deals generate lucrative earnings for top programs, especially those in Power Five conferences. Financial incentives have prompted universities — many of them public institutions — to build costly facilities, inflate their athletic budgets, and pump millions into sports programs. It appears that an alarming number of schools have favored athletics at the expense of scholarship. Depressing graduation rates and bleak grades among many teams, some would say, reveal the corrosive effects of athletics on academics.
I do not contest the concerns raised by detractors of bigtime intercollegiate sports. The money invested in athletics is worrying at the very least. Alabama football coach Nick Saban leads the NCAA with an annual salary of over $7 million, and other coaches are not far behind. Although private funds account for most of their compensation, I am averse to the principle of academic institutions — many of them public universities — paying athletic staff far more than administrators or professors. Thanks to the NCAA’s multibillion dollar operation, it is fair to say that athletics dwarf academics on many campuses. Many Americans could probably identify a recent Heisman Trophy winner or basketball national champion. As for a prominent academic, however, far fewer could come up with a name.
The picture is fortunately not nearly as bleak at Davidson College, where athletics supplement the academic experience. Here, we are student-athletes in that order. As Director of Athletics Jim Murphy points out, “It’s true that Davidson needs intercollegiate athletics, but intercollegiate athletics need Davidson even more.” Lauded by the media, our men’s basketball program, for instance, boasts a perfect graduation rate — one of just a few teams in the NCAA tournament last spring to do so. That commitment is true across the board. In a recent release by the NCAA, our student-athletes earned a total Graduation Success Rate of 98 percent, and 14 teams had perfect scores. We might not think much of that statistic, but it is impressive in the increasingly one-sided world of college sports.
Absent at other schools, where players lead isolated lifestyles and are treated like royalty, equality between athletes and non-athletes defines the Davidson experience. I have never seen Wildcats receive preferential treatment for their participation in sports. For instance, Web- Tree ensures all members of our student body fair course registration when athletes elsewhere choose classes before everyone else. Our athletes also use the same facilities as everyone else and pursue the same coursework. Extenuating circumstances aside, professors hold non-athletes and athletes alike to the same standards. Our teams comply with NCAA and College academic regulations, and athletes do not ask for unwarranted extensions or absences. Despite the commendable achievements of reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry, our most famous former student since Woodrow Wilson, Davidson has rightfully not waived its requirement that players must graduate before having their numbers retired. The quarter of us involved with intercollegiate athletics — even the planet’s best basketball player —ask for no special favors and receive none.
In my experience on the cross country and track teams, I have never seen my athletic commitments undermine my academic pursuits. Setting aside a few hours each day for training has taught me the value of hard work, prioritization, and teamwork. Intercollegiate athletics, which presents its own challenges like long road trips and grueling workouts, is overall an unparalleled experience that I am lucky to enjoy. I see myself as an undergraduate student who happens to run, and my peers feel the same way. In accordance with our Statement of Purpose, our sports teams foster “humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds.” I value the lessons I have learned and skills I have developed from my athletic participation and feel that it supplements, not dominates, my schoolwork.
Our running program does not put athletics before academics. In fact, the first goal our coach set for the cross country team this year was carrying the highest GPA in the country. Winning the conference meet came second. Coach Waldron has never compromised our studies and believes that athletics should accommodate academics, not the other way around. Our team’s academic commitment speaks for itself. We carried a 3.62 GPA last fall — one of the highest marks in the country. I know that other teams here prioritize academics in a similar manner. School work may come a distant second for teams at other schools, but that is not the case at Davidson.
As I enter my final semester wearing the red and black, I have reflected on the uniqueness of my student-athlete experience. Representing the school to which I owe so much is an honor and privilege. I am grateful to have received a tremendous education while pursuing my athletic passions on the side. My dedication to running has made me a more complete son of Davidson College. It is true that outrageous scandals and disproportionate athletic budgets mar academic institutions nationwide. However, they do not exist here. Critics should target systemic problems within college sports, but they would do well to avoid generalizations when discussing the Davidson Wildcats.