Athletics for All the Right Reasons
by Victoria Kidd - Assistant Director of Advancement Communications
- it's the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) campaign to promote success after sports. According to the association, there are more than 380,000 collegiate student-athletes across the country and nearly all of them will become professionals in a career other than sports. Ensuring their readiness for life off the playing field requires a healthy balance between athletics and academics. Susquehanna University, a Division III school, prides itself on striking this balance.
"Part of the power of a Susquehanna education is bound up in the way the curriculum and co-curriculum fit together as important learning environments. Of course learning takes place in the classroom, in labs and in the library, but so, too, does very important and powerful learning take place in the dining hall, on the theatre stage, in musical groups, on athletics fields, in clubs and organizations, and in residence halls. Fundamentally, participation in these co-curricular activities is part and parcel of what a Susquehanna education can provide to our students," says President L. Jay Lemons.
"Athletics, whether it's varsity sports, intramurals or club sports, is an incredibly important vehicle for educating our students. There are extraordinary life lessons to be gleaned from sports participation, and often times, these lessons become manifest in other aspects of a student's educational experience," Lemons says.
The NCAA manual states that: "Colleges and universities in Division III place highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students' academic programs. They seek to establish and maintain an environment in which a student-athlete's athletics activities are conducted as an integral part of the student-athlete's educational experience, and in which coaches play a significant role as educators."
Susquehanna's athletics program maintains this philosophy. "Above all else, the number one priority for our student-athletes is to leave SU with a degree in hand. There are many factors that lead to an individual's academic success, and our coaches and staff believe that we have a key role to play in the overall graduation rate of the university," says Pam Samuelson, director of athletics.
Is Division III facing irreconcilable differences, as a New York Times report suggested in February 2007? With about 450 mostly small colleges that prohibit athletic scholarships, Division III is by far the largest division in the NCAA. According to the Times article, "the diversity has bred discord, and now the alliance is preparing to split in two, a recognition of how fractured the membership is over issues like money, national championships and the appropriate mission of athletics in higher education."
The disparate viewpoints among Division III schools played a role in Susquehanna's decision to join new athletics conferences. "Due to the diversity of institutions that exists in Division III, the conference alignment of schools becomes the primary factor in leveling the playing field for the student-athletes," Samuelson says.
"We place a high value at SU on the academic success of our student-athletes in a rigorous academic environment, on teaching successful behaviors that can be utilized for a lifetime and providing a successful athletic experience in which the individual will feel proud. Our membership in both the Liberty League and the Landmark Conference align us with institutions that place a high value on these same things. In short, the student-athlete experience at SU is very similar to that at Union, Goucher, St. Lawrence and Drew," Samuelson says.
Despite having its fair share of growing pains, many believe that Division III is still reasonably healthy. Among its supporters is Don Harnum '86, athletics director at Rider University and son of the university's retired athletics director. "My dad always said Division III is the purest form of collegiate athletics and I agree with that," says Harnum, who played on the men's basketball team at SU.
When revenues, scholarships and championship expectations become the focus of an athletics program, Harnum says, "It becomes more like a business. Then the bad things with coaching come out, and the teaching element falls away."
Although this apparent lack of balance and direction has been more predominant in Division I schools, the College Sports Project (CSP), an initiative of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, says that "Division III institutions are not immune to forces that threaten the balance between athletics and educational values." As a result, the CSP and its more than 130 Division III institution participants, including Susquehanna, are facing the threats with a holistic approach that may very well strengthen the educational utility of Division III athletics.
At the core of the CSP approach are two key principles: (1) athletes should be representative of all students in terms of academic outcomes and opportunities for engagement in campus activities; and (2) athletics programs must be properly aligned with the primary missions of their respective institutions, which requires the integration of coaches and athletics administrators into the mainstream of a campus' educational life.
At Susquehanna, the CSP principles are contiguous to the notion of active learning, learning by doing. "We pride ourselves on active learning, and athletics is an expression of that. It is active learning at its best," says Lemons.
David Wonderlick '01, an attorney with Watt, Tieder, Hoffar & Fitzgerald, L.L.P., based in McLean, Va., says this active learning environment is pervasive across campus. "The learning environment on the football team paralleled that which I experienced in the classrooms at SU: very collegial and collaborative. SU's culture lends itself well to learning through interaction on a much more personal level, both academically and athletically," he says.
It is the role of coaches as educators that Dan Doyle, founder and executive director of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island, considers the hallmark of a strong collegiate athletics program. In The Master Coach, a forthcoming manual poised to set the standard for coaching excellence in the future, Doyle says a high level of proficiency within the coaching staff and administration is a key consideration, but he does not restrict that proficiency to the playing field.
"I mean it not only in terms of having textbook knowledge of a person's sport but also in the ability to use sports as a means to educate," Doyle says. "Being a master coach," he explains, "involves seeing sports within the context of the overall educational mission of the school."
According to Associate Professor of Biology Margaret Peeler, chair of the Curriculum Committee and Intercollegiate Athletics Advisory Committee, Susquehanna's sports program maintains this larger perspective. "As important as athletics are to some students, we are united in believing that academics take precedence. I hear our coaches say that to students all the time, and the nice thing is that at SU, they really believe it," she says.
Peeler, who also serves as Susquehanna's Faculty Athletics Representative, says there are many ways that participation in sports allows students to achieve important learning goals. "When we were developing the learning goals, we were quite clear as a community that students would best achieve these goals through a combination of classroom and non-classroom based experiences, and athletics makes a strong contribution to those non-classroom based opportunities," Peeler says.
In his forthcoming book, The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting, Doyle presents survey results from interviews conducted with 500 of the most successful people in the U.S. One of the overarching benefits of playing sports, according to these individuals, is the development of "competitive self-restraint," a term Doyle uses to describe the "zone" athletes enter in the heat of the game.
"It's that important objective of staying focused and maintaining one's resolve without losing self-control," Doyle explains. Maintaining this mixture of diligence and equanimity is a good goal to pursue in many aspects of life, including the workplace, Doyle says.
In Wonderlick's experience, devoting attention to athletics and academics simultaneously helped him sharpen his concentration skills, maximize his efficiency and develop communication and leadership skills. "Those traits translate well to any endeavor, but I've found them especially important at the beginning of my career as an attorney. I'm often required to handle multiple, concurrent tasks efficiently and accurately, and my experience as a student-athlete has helped provide the skill set to do so," he says.
Being able to work as part of a team is another valuable trait student-athletes bring to their respective careers, according to Gerald Huesken '77, superintendent of Conestoga Valley School District in Lancaster, Pa. "The importance of team play is a skill that is invaluable in the world of work. In addition, my sense of confidence in achieving my goals came directly from my involvement in sports," says Huesken, a former varsity football player.
"Academics need to be the primary focus. We all have to agree and understand that fact. The focus also has to be on the individual student-athlete as a person, not as a commodity," he says.
In Huesken's evaluation, Susquehanna does just that. "My experience at SU was one of the best of my life," he says. "A lot of what I am today came from the positive life experiences I had at Susquehanna, and my best season was 4-5-1. Winning was not everything."
"Coaches can make a world of difference in the lives of their players, and many times the impact is beyond the field," Huesken says. "Coaches are in no doubt extensions of the faculty. There are so many things coaches taught me, I don't think I could ever name them all," says Martin Pinter '98, a purchasing manager for Tilcon-New York and former football and track and field student-athlete. "The biggest lesson I learned is not to allow success to make me complacent," Pinter says. "We must always strive to be better than yesterday and use today to learn about tomorrow. My track coach, Jim Taylor, used to come up to me when I was throwing the javelin and tell me his trademark quote, 'It's a great day to get better.'"
According to Assistant Swimming Coach Katrina Robbins '96, a former varsity swimmer herself, the most important job coaches have is making their student-athletes better persons. "It's all about teaching student-athletes to be accountable, to do their best on any given day, and to be a team player and good role model." "By becoming an athlete, you become a representative of your team and your university. Therefore, you should be held to a higher standard. If you want the potential to be in the limelight, you must be prepared to go under the microscope," Robbins says.
Harnum calls this the pedestal vs. the microscope phenomenon. At a young age, athletes learn that they are held to a different standard. "They understand that their actions have broader reaching ramifications and that's an important translation when you go into the workforce," Harnum says.
The bottom line, according to Karyn Kern '01 Pinter, director of student-athlete services at Kean University, is Susquehanna's coaches teach student-athletes those intangible traits that are not found in textbooks, yet enhance their educational experiences. Pairing these life lessons and challenging academic programs makes for a winning combination at Susquehanna, according to Kern Pinter, who competed in track and field. "You don't attend Susquehanna just to play sports. You are also there to get a top-notch education and prepare for life after athletics," she says.
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Consistently, alumni and student achievements serve as testaments to the successful balance of sport and scholarship in Susquehanna athletics. Take the women's basketball team, for instance. Besides qualifying for the conference playoffs for the second straight year, the team's academic performance ranked fifth best in the nation among Division III schools. A 3.563 cumulative grade point average for the 2006-2007 academic year landed the program on the annual Women's Basketball Coaches Association Academic Top 25 Honor Roll for the second straight year, having been ranked number 17 in 2006. In addition, eight team members earned Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) All-Academic Team honors.
"We are very proud that Coach Jim Reed and his team show such dedication to their work in the classroom, in addition to their accomplishments on the court. They truly epitomize the ideals of Division III athletics," Samuelson says.
"The women have great priorities, and do a wonderful job keeping a balanced approach to athletics and academics. Whether it is qualifying for playoffs, or getting recognized for a stellar team G.P.A., or landing great jobs after graduating, when my players succeed, I feel like I've succeeded," says Reed.
The team's success exemplifies Wonderlick's assertion that Susquehanna strikes the right balance between academics and athletics. "There is strong support and encouragement for the athletics teams throughout the university, but there is no compromise of academic standards in the name of athletic success," Wonderlick says. "There are many models across the country of schools that maintain impressive academic reputations while consistently fielding highly competitive sports teams, and it is a source of pride for alumni when we can count SU among them."
Editor's Note: "Athletics for All the Right Reasons" was coined by John R. Strangfeld '75, board of trustees vice chairman, in describing the philosophy of Susquehanna's athletics program, during discussion in 2005 among the board's Reputation Task Force, on which he served.