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Sports Versus Academics


In the aftermath of the Penn State scandal, I am sometimes asked if my view of college sports has changed. The answer is no. I believe what I have long believed: that the Division III approach to college sports—the approach embraced by Tufts—is the right one. This is not to say that all the athletic programs at the large, sports-oriented Division I schools have lost their way. Certainly there are dedicated coaches working at that level who care deeply about the young men and women they coach. But it is also true that the influence of money—big money—has seriously distorted the role of competitive sports at many Division I institutions.

What distinguishes Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association from Division I is this: Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, and must follow rules that seek to manage the time that players devote to sports—say, by limiting the number of contests, weeks of practice, and even hours of practice. These rules support an environment where players take great pride in their sports commitment, but not at the expense of their academic experience. They are true student-athletes. At a university like Tufts, sports should be in synergy with academics, not in competition with it. While the academic experience is clearly the lifeblood of the institution, experiences outside of the classroom, such as varsity sports, complement that education in significant ways.

Division III is about balance and commitment to excellence in all phases of life. In the athletics arena one learns about working hard, bouncing back, and, above all, teamwork. A few years ago, a Cornell College baseball player summed up Division III this way:

It ’s a bigger part of us than our friends and family can understand. Sometimes we play for two thousand fans; sometimes twenty-five. But we still play hard. You cheer for us because you know us. You know more than just our names. Like all of you, we are students first. We don’t sign autographs. But we do sign graduate school applications, MCAT exams, and student body petitions. . . . We train hard, lift, throw, run, kick, tackle, shoot, dribble, and lift some more, and in the morning we go to class.

Tufts athletes reflect the values of that quote. They are dedicated, hardworking, and talented. They strive to win, and hurt when they lose. But in the morning, they go to class.

Just as important, our coaches are in the business for the right reason: to teach through the vehicle of sport. When we hire new coaches, we look first for passion—passion for the sport, passion for working with young people. We then look for communication skills and an understanding of teambuilding. Sport knowledge and track record are also important, but not at the expense of these personal qualities. We look for leaders who understand why Tufts invests in sports: for its educational value. Coaches like this can be wonderful influences in the lives of young people.

We also understand that sports can strengthen a community. Last year, we started an initiative called Fan the Fire: Spirit, Sports, and Service (you can learn about it at bit.ly/fanthefire). At first, our goal was to draw more support for our teams by creating events that highlighted both sports competition and charities that our teams support. The women’s soccer team, for example, is affiliated with Team Impact, an organization that brings student athletes together in service of children with life-threatening illnesses. But we quickly saw the potential for extending the reach of Fan the Fire beyond sports. As students began to attend games and meets for the first time—attracted by the connection to public service—they began to form relationships with the athletes. The athletes, in turn, began attending these students’ activities. As a member of our baseball team put it: “This is really about more than drawing fans to games. It’s about building one Tufts.”

And that’s it in a nutshell. At Tufts, our athletes are students like everyone else. They sleep in the same dorms, eat the same food, take the same exams, and strive to make the most of their academic experience. They’re also passionate about sports—and thankfully, in Division III, they can aspire to excellence in both.

BILL GEHLING, director of athletics, has been at Tufts for more than forty years as a student, a soccer coach, and an administrator.

  © 2012 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155