With all of the recent conference realignment in the NCAA, college sports have seemed to lose a little bit of its integrity. For years, many have criticized professional sports for being driven by money and fame and turned to the college realm to appreciate athletes competing for fun and out of passion. But, many are now also thinking that the college game is no longer innocently beautiful. However, one word still proves that it is: student-athlete.
No, I'm not talking about Division I athletes who are constantly getting caught up in the middle of recruiting scandals and eligibility investigations. I'm talking about Division II and III athletes who truly define the word student in that complicated and complex term.
Many D-II and D-III student athletes were and still are talented enough to play at the D-I level, but academics and school size of D-II and D-III institutions are more suited for students who purposefully attempt to be as successful in the classroom as they are on the field. Being within a small community on a small campus while also fostering family-like relationships with teammates only helps D-II and D-III athletes experience a more well-rounded college experience. And, they also tend to further develop the great work ethics and true passion for the game they love.
Take Matt Goodman, for example, an Owings Mills, MD product who is a freshman pitcher at York College in Pennsylvania. Goodman, a 5'10 southpaw, was always told he was too small and not good enough to make it to the college level, but he never stopped fighting and working. Today, he stands at the top of his individual mountain.
"Being a college baseball player feels amazing. There's no better feeling," Goodman says. "This is what I've been working for all my life."
Goodman did receive several Division I offers, but chose a smaller school for a better education in what he believes to be both a better academic and athletic environment.
"Being able to balance baseball and work at the same time has been a big challenge," he admits. "But your education is what you make it. My coaches aren't looking over my shoulder to make me do my homework. I'm all on my own. But it's my responsibility to go to my teachers and learn what I need to learn."
Conor Dempster is also a true student-athlete. A wide receiver at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, Dempster chose to attend a Division III university instead of a Division II or Division I-AA school in pursuit of receiving a better education.
"I decided I'd rather get a better education and have the opportunity to play all four years," Dempster says. "Being a big fish in a small pond is better than a small fish in a big pond, especially when you're going to receive a good degree in the end as well."
Unfortunately for the talented Burlington, NJ product, Dempster was forced to redshirt this season due to heart irregularities but will be back on the field for spring ball following the school's spring break. He hopes to be a high school history teacher once his playing days are officially over.
Chris Santo, a sophomore forward on the Saint Anselm College men's basketball team, knows the difference in DI and DII athletics better than almost anyone. A former Vermont Catamount, Santo transferred to Saint Anselm this summer in search for more playing time along with a better education. In the midst of his first season at the D-II level, Santo is definitely experiencing some differences from the Division I level.
"I'd say Division I is more year-round," Santo says. "At Vermont we were enrolled in a summer course, here we're sort of on our own once classes aren't in session."
He also had to spend all of his Thanksgiving and winter breaks on campus while at Vermont, practicing and playing with the team. Now, he's currently enjoying part of his 9-day break at home, away from squeaking sneakers and enjoying ugly Christmas sweaters.
While the pace of the game has definitely slowed down for Santo in D-II as opposed to D-I, the talent level is still there. But, he's more focused on the different educational values.
"At Vermont, they had resources there for you," he said. "There was an academic support group of maybe four or five people who weren't necessarily tutors. Now, there are fewer opportunities for that extra help, and the academics are more rigorous."
According to the Hawks' sixth man, he's receiving a far better education, while also competing with the same athletic intensity.
Most importantly, Santo, along with Goodman and Dempster, are taking on the responsibility of their own education just as serious as any other student, while also excelling in the field of play.
Today, college athletes in general are unfairly stereotyped as immature, uneducated and undeserving of the college education their able to receive at the institutions they play at. However, if you really look at the work that Division II and Division III student-athletes simultaneously put into their degrees and teams, they deserve a lot of credit.
Maybe they deserve even more than some regular students.