I am a person who grew up before Title IX and before women's athletics were deemed important. I don't even remember whether my high school had women's teams; if they did, neither I nor any of my friends ever went to a game.
I attended a university that closed the gym to women on weekends to make sure men could have all the access they needed. “Women's lib” was all the rage at the time, but I didn't even question this arrangement.
I also did not grow up learning anything about sports.By now, I have attended hundreds of athletic contests, but I still stand close to my husband so I can discreetly ask, “What just happened?”
In spite of this inauspicious beginning, when I became president of Whittier, I quickly became hooked on Division III athletics.
This spring the nation fixated on Final Four basketball, and the media focused on whether scholarship athletes should get even more money for playing their sport. Meanwhile, the 448 Division III colleges and universities sat happily on the sidelines, doing what they have done for the 40 years of our division’s existence. At our schools, which give no athletics scholarships and are devoted to providing opportunities for students to participate in the widest variety of sports, we promote the tradition of the scholar-athlete and truly believe and operate under the philosophy that students are students first. As the NCAA likes to assert, most NCAA athletes will go pro in something other than athletics. Nowhere is that fact more true than in Division III.
Each year I sponsor a President's Club luncheon for all of the student-athletes who earned a place on the dean's list in the previous year at our college. This year one-quarter of our 436 intercollegiate athletes were honored, in addition to whole teams earning NCAA All-Academic honors. And while only a handful of our students will earn invitations to try out for professional sports teams, most of the students in the room will have their choice of graduate and professional schools.
Division III schools tend to be smaller than the powerhouse athletic schools. Their faculty focus on teaching the liberal arts and sciences, typically in small classes, and their graduates earn a disproportionate number of advanced degrees. With this education and the leadership and team-building skills garnered through athletics, no wonder Division III has produced leaders in virtually every field.
At our first-ever President's Club luncheon, Whittier alumnus Stan Sanders, a Rhodes Scholar and prominent attorney in Los Angeles, told those assembled that his mother made him a reader and his father made him an athlete, and that this combination laid the path for all of the achievements in his life. That's the Division III story.
I could tell you many stories about Division III scholar-athletes who have gone on to prominence, but perhaps one of the most interesting would be about Richard Nixon, a bench warmer in football and basketball – and if there were a bench, he would also have sat on it in track. But President Nixon cheered his more talented teammates like no other, and he attributed his persistence throughout his career to the teachings of his coach, whom the players called “Chief” Newman. There is no doubt that this coach, who took players to visit his Luiseño Indian tribe, strongly influenced a young man who subsequently became one of the most important proponents of Native American rights ever to assume the presidency.
I never experienced the joy, the frustration or the hard work of being an athlete, nor the fun of being a member of an athletic team. But as a college president at a Division III institution, I cheer for our athletes with pride and with the knowledge that they will achieve much in the years ahead.
Sharon Herzberger is president of Whittier College and chair of the NCAA Division III Presidents Council.