Division III Athletics: Competing in the Bigger Picture

04/14/2015 10:27 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

We lost the big game. Yes, we lost. We were on the wrong side of the final score and our dreams of winning a NCAA National Championship in men's basketball. The loss was a disappointment for the players, our students, alumni, campus community and the city.

But, the aftermath of the loss in the big game has proven to be everything but disappointing. It's reminded me why Division III athletics is so important and why this level of student-athletes and our culture of athletics should be the example for big-time athletics in this county.

When we lost the championship game there was no teeth-gnashing, second-guessing, dissing the talent, talk about firing the coach or discussion about what donors and boosters need to do to attract the talent we need to win the big game. We already have everything we need.

What we witnessed should instead serve as an example to the big-time programs that seem to suck all of the respect out of college-sponsored athletics, especially during bowl season and March Madness.

It is understandable why the media and commentators have such negative and cynical views of college athletics in an era in which we've seen egregious examples of academic fraud, programs defined by a one-year-and-done college career, poor postgame sportsmanship, efforts to unionize players because of perceived exploitation and more serious discussion than ever before of paying (beyond scholarships) student-athletes to play in big-time college sports. But, these often-cited examples of what's wrong in college sports should not define college athletics. (This sentiment even made it's way into a recent SNL skit , which mocked the whole idea of student-athletes.)

But, this is not the case everywhere when it comes to college athletics and student-athletes. In fact, there is a certain irony that the Division I National Championship occurred during Division III week.

The NCAA, critics of college sports, and those seeking reform should take a deeper look at D3 athletics. Here are some reminders offered during our head coach Grey Giovanine's remarks when our team returned from Salem, and by fans, alumni, faculty and community members, captured through interviews, a special tag board and other social media commentary about our team's run to #2 in the country:

D3 student-athletes take the same classes and major in the same programs as everyone else on campus--There are no special classes, no easy majors and no winks and nods here. The sociology professor posting about a senior who was in her first-year seminar gave me a glimpse of this. A conversation at the championship game, with the parent of a junior player who will spend the summer doing an internship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, delaying a surgical procedure he needs before next season, clarified the idea. And a look at the majors represented on the team--including accounting, communication studies, biochemistry, multimedia journalism, social welfare and a few in pre-medicine--reinforced that these student-athletes are serious students.

D3 student-athletes eat and live in the same places on campus as everyone else-- When interviewed about why they made the 13 hours trip to watch the team, several of the 200+ students who paid $85 to ride a bus to Salem, Virginia, for the Final Four talked about their friends on the team. They mentioned the player they've known since orientation, lived with in the same hall, sat next to in classes or fell into line with at the burger station each night. This was a great reminder that student-athletes at the D3 level are not a part of an elite group off on the horizon, but are a visible, tangible part of the community. They don't have special living areas or a training table especially for their use.

D3 student-athletes attend the same high schools and come from the same hometowns as everyone else on campus--Since D3 schools tend to be a little more regional and don't have enormous recruiting budgets, student-athletes tend to be from familiar places and share similar values. This is not only great for parents and loved ones who have opportunities to watch more games, it's great for classmates and community members who follow these athletes' careers in college. This builds community and pride in the team.

They pay the same to attend college as everyone else on campus--First, D3 student-athletes pay for college, which itself is a contrast to big-time college sports! But what many don't know is that D3 colleges participate in an annual data-submission that ensures that student-athletes and non-athletes receive comparable financial aid awards. This reporting ensures that there is no shady financial business and that D3 colleges do not privilege a small cohort of student-athletes. D3 student-athletes simply pay for their education and for the privilege of participating in college athletics.

They work the same jobs as everyone else on campus--As I looked through the roster of this team, I noticed that almost every student-athlete on the team works a real job on campus to earn a little spending money. A journalism major is the Sports Information Director at a student-run radio station (and plays basketball). Another works here in the admissions office doing data-entry and corresponding with prospective transfer students. No make work jobs; real work where these athletes work alongside other students.

They simply are not elite, distant, exploited or treated more favorably.

As I think about all of the criticism we hear during March Madness, maybe D3 should be the example? Maybe all of those things about which I was reminded that March weekend should be reminders to all of us with an interest intercollegiate sports?

Speaking of our big loss, though--at the end of the game our super fans who made the trip broke into a giant cheer of "Thank you, Augie" as our team left the court. At that moment I was reminded about everything that is right about athletics.

W. Kent Barnds, is executive vice president and vice president of enrollment at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., which ranks 6th in the nation for student-athletes who have earned the distinction as an Academic All-American. He was a D3 student-athlete at Gettysburg College.