Like most aspects of life, when it comes to college athletics, we often primarily focus on a select few. In the mainstream, college athletics are portrayed as only being about winning, money and fame. When in reality, for a majority of participants, college athletics are about passion, sacrifice and improving one’s self. There are 1,281 NCAA schools, 249 NAIA schools and 525 NJCAA schools competing in up to 24 sports each. However, the mass media overwhelmingly focuses on the few bad behaving D1 football and men’s basketball programs. Sure, D1 football and men’s basketball pay most of the bills for the larger athletic departments, generate billions in TV revenue and will probably always be the face of the NCAA. Nonetheless, these two sports are a very small piece of the overall puzzle and the corruption, excess and money associated with them is not an accurate representation of the vast majority of college athletics.
To say Rick Pitino, Art Briles, Joe Paterno or Hugh Freeze love the sport they coached more than any one of the tens of thousands of coaches involved in NCAA DII/III, the NAIA or NJCAA athletics would be outrageous. These celebrity coaches probably do love the game, but somewhere along the line they lost their way and to imply their behavior is the norm is erroneous. Coaches at small schools often earn extremely modest compensation, work insane hours and wouldn’t be recognized in-person by 99% of people in their school’s hometown.
When compared to college, for most student-athletes there is far more glory and notoriety in high school. Waking up at 5:30am to practice for a sport where there may be a few hundred spectators at any given event is not done to promote one’s “personal brand” in hopes of landing a shoe contract. It’s done for the love of the sport and competition - hundreds of thousands of collegiate athletes do this every year. Just like the NCAA commercials say, the sweeping majority of college athletes are going pro in something else, so why then do we fixate on the outliers as opposed to celebrating the bulk of bell curve?
This piece is not written through a lens of naiveté – it’s no secret, college athletics and its media partners are all about the money, which is ultimately a function of public interest. Nevertheless, it would be great to more prominently see/hear the stories of those participating in college sports for the right reasons – which are not money or fame. College sports in its purest form is a wresting dual meet between DIII rivals Augsburg and Wartburg or a JuCo volleyball match between Colby Community College and Garden City Community College
A common argument for the necessity of excess in D1 football and men’s basketball is the notion they foot the bill for all the other sports. In many instances this is the truth, but it should be noted the extravagant money in college athletics only became extreme in recent decades and college athletics have been a centerpiece on campuses across the country since the 1900s or earlier. Which begs the question, were college athletics better in the 1960s? How about the 1920s? Nobody knows. Obviously, there is no stopping the train of glut which has delivered us to this juncture, and it would be foolish to even try. Even so, perhaps more time should be spent emphasizing what’s so great about college athletics.