The scholarship dilemma: DIII

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Photo courtesy of UD Athletics

When I was a senior in high school, I went to my cross-country coach’s office after school one afternoon to talk about an upcoming meet.

“You’ve got more mail,” she said, producing a pile of letters from colleges offering me scholarships to run for them. I told her to throw them away; I was determined to make my decision for college separately from my decision about running in college. 

When I arrived at the University of Dallas, our status as an NCAA Division IIIschool was the best policy I could imagine: not offering scholarships for cross-country allowed my roommate, who had never run cross-country before, to join the team. Sure, we did not have free Nike shoes, but D3 let us be first students, then athletes.

But as I became more invested in athletics, I gradually realized that there are benefits to offering athletic scholarships. Athletic scholarships incentivize institutions to be more invested in the athletes’ wellbeing and success. In fact, it seems that D3 schools have an inherent downfall: schools with no money staked in athletes cannot be as invested in their success. 

Although it sounds obvious to say that an institution will be more invested in the well-being of an athlete when there is a monetary investment involved, I think it is important to realize this is an inherent challenge in D3 schools. While it is in the D1 or D2 school’s best interest to provide a high level of care to their athletes, D3 schools are not as highly incentivized to provide the same level of care. 

Scholarships also allow for consistency between programs, whereas D3 schools are often vastly dispersed in athletics funding and resources. Underfunded D3 athletics programs are expected to compete against D1-caliber schools that recruit based on their pristine facilities and athletic reputation. 

“I think, ironically, Division 3 is designed to have the competitive balance, and everybody is a student-athlete, but my observations are that there is actually the greatest variance in resources in Division 3,” said head men’s soccer coach David Hoffmann. He described how D3 schools that work around the rules to maximize scholarship packages recruit D1-level athletes, while the guidelines regarding scholarships are much more strict at scholarship schools. Scholarships level the playing field.

Moreover, the investment of schools in players reflects the investment of the players in their sport. Several UD athletes expressed frustration at not feeling valued as athletes.

“It can be frustrating transitioning or going to a university and not feeling recognized and valued as an athlete,” said Jordan Ness, a former cross-country runner at Oral Roberts University, a D1 school. Ness transferred to UD last year and ran for Dallas at a few meets, but ultimately decided against staying on the team. 

“It is still a huge commitment [to compete at a D3 school],” said Ness. 

“It’s frustrating,” said ! King, a freshman basketball player at UD. “You come here and kind of the feeling you get is, well, we’re glad that you’re playing sports, but it’s kinda your fault that you don’t have as much time or energy as a normal student.” 

That same level of investment, however, immediately presents a problem: scholarship athletes are obliged to the institution that pays them — through scholarship — to perform at a certain level. 

“They own you,” said Ness. “When you’re on scholarship, they own you.” Although Ness herself was not on scholarship to run, she saw the power of scholarships to create a dangerous sense of the coach’s power over athletes. 

“[The scholarship athletes] were treated like dogs. Not all the time … It depends on the coach, it doesn’t depend on if you’re D1,” said Ness. 

Even when Ness’s own health faltered during her sophomore season, her coaches pushed her to perform beyond her well-being. 

“They kept racing me, and I was so afraid that I would collapse … I didn’t know if anything would go really bad,” said Ness. “I felt like I was just like, I don’t know, just like a resource to them. I didn’t feel like my health and well-being mattered. I felt like it was just a matter of them getting the numbers they needed.”

Ultimately, Ness wanted a college experience that was not controlled by athletics. 

“I didn’t see the point at competing at that level … I felt like there was so much more to me than that. So I walked away, and transferred here,” said Ness.

Matt Grahn, UD’s recruitment coordinator and assistant men’s basketball coach, said that scholarships can corrupt the coaches’ relationships with their players. 

“Because schools are offering grant and aid, the pressure to win becomes a whole lot more important. And when that pressure happens, what we see is that people in coaching positions tend to want to bend or break the rules … they will do things just to win more in the win/loss column, and will sacrifice their own morals and ethics to do so,” said Grahn. 

Scholarships have the potential to not only disconcert the relationship between player and coach, but also to control a coach’s own personal life. While coaching at a D1 school for eight years, Grahn struggled to find balance between his coaching career and personal priorities. At one point he even called his mom, telling her that she was not going to get any grandkids if he kept his job as a D1 coach. 

“[At D3] we don’t have that money hanging over your head that says ‘you have to do these things, or else’,” Grahn said. “I sleep better at night.”

“I’m disgusted with D1. It’s professional,” said Dr. Thomas Jodziewicz, a history professor and long-time supporter of athletics at UD. “There’s too much money involved.”

Not offering scholarships allows for a student athletes to pursue a sport for the sheer love of playing, rather than out of the pressure to hit numbers and keep scholarships. 

[At D3] people don’t do the sport because they are trying to go pro later on, they’re doing it because they love it,” said Ness. 

Rather than academic advisors who would find the easiest classes for student athletes to take at her former school, Ness has found that athletes are expected to be students at UD. 

“I think it’s a good thing,” said freshman basketball player Matt Holloway. “A lot of D1, D2 guys, especially the ones that know they are going to go pro somewhere … school means nothing,” he said. “I could’ve gone and played basketball at other schools.”

“I didn’t even pay attention to D2s, because most of them are low academic, so even if they do offer you money, it matters more about your degree,” said freshman basketball player Jacob Giunta. “Here … there’s just a lot more to offer than money, they offer other things,” he said, citing UD’s internship programs and the many opportunities that the city of Dallas has to offer. 

Despite having other options, the fact that Holloway and Giunta both choose to come to UD testifies that student athletes are consistent with the culture of UD’s general population. If athletes are drawn to a school for athletic scholarships, without having any consideration for the school itself, there would be a great disparity between students and athletes. Not offering scholarships, and thus allowing for an organic draw of athletes who fit in with UD’s greater culture, facilitates building UD’s community.

“UD is a very niche school,” said Hoffmann. “The kids that are choosing here ultimately have a lot in common with everybody in the university, but when you put that on top of the shared experience of Rome and the shared experiences of being a soccer player … I think it just amplifies those bonds.”

The fact that UD is a “niche” school may be problematic for recruiting: is it fair to recruit athletes to be students at a D3 school? Every year, Grahn contacts about 12,000 prospective student-athletes, a number over eight times the population of current students and athletes actually enrolled for an undergraduate degree. Grahn uses an intensive four-week cycle of recruiting that targets prospective student-athletes with four emails, three texts, two pieces of snail-mail, and one phone call. 

“I did come here more for the sports than for the academics,” said King. He heard about the school from his high school coach, who played for UD, and King arrived on campus without having visited. The environment of intensive academics was a surprise. 

“It’s a lot of writing and essays, and I was never mentioned that until I was just thrown in,” said King’s teammate Giunta. Although Giunta  was recruited by UD in a more conventional way than King, he also underestimated the academic rigor he was signing up for before classes began. 

Grahn says he and the coaches do try to communicate the academic rigor of UD to recruits. 

“I emphasize, and our coaches do a good job emphasizing: this is an academic decision,” said Grahn. “We want them ultimately to be set up for success after the ball stops bouncing, after you hang up the running shoes.”

The basketball players I spoke with don’t regret coming to an academically rigorous school, even if it’s not exactly what they had in mind before coming to UD. 

“That’s something I’ve learned coming here, the more I’ve been here, the more I’m valuing what we’re getting at this school,” said King. “From getting recruited I didn’t get that sense of how special our education is compared to other schools.”

In fact, if there is a potential fault in D3 schools because they are not monetarily invested in their players, UD defeats it by providing a community that is deeply invested in the player as a student and an athlete.

“The environment is incredible,” said King, speaking of the community both inside and outside of athletics. 

Hoffmann suggested that divisions do little more than determine the level at which the school competes, and that the community bears the most weight on a player’s college experience. 

“I don’t think … that scholarships are necessarily worse or better, it just kind of classifies the type of work that you are doing. On average, a scholarship program is going to have better players. At the same time, it just dictates who you are playing against … Once you sort of make peace with the idea that you are coaching at a certain level, then you just try to be the best you can be at that level.”

Benefits and downfalls of athletic scholarships aside, the player’s daily, personal interactions with coaching staff, athletic trainers and those in academia have more weight on his or her overall college experience than receiving or not receiving an athletic scholarship. An athletics program really isn’t judged by the money it offers, but rather by the community it binds together.

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