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DIII Student-Athletes Want to Sign, Too

High school students heading into Division III want to be recognized in their communities for competing at the college level. Soon, they might be

Grayson High School football player Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top football recruit, announces his intent to play for the University of Mississippi during a signing day ceremony in February 2013 at his high school auditorium in Grayson, Georgia.

Picture a suburban high school. See swaths of white cinderblock painted black and gold or blue and yellow. See the students gather in the cafeteria, crowding around a long table where a handful of their peers sit and sign National Letters of Intent, officially declaring that they will soon be playing basketball or soccer or football at Division I or Division II schools. See the photographer from the local newspaper snapping photos. Hear the reporter asking them how excited they are to finally be a Buckeye or a Tiger or a Boilermaker.

Now picture the other athletes, the ones who will play those same sports in college, only at Division III schools. See them standing off to the side, lost in the crowd – watching. Or see them signing a blank piece of paper, not a document emblazoned with their school colors and punctuated by a dotted line. Under Division III rules, that is all they have ever been allowed to do.

Now ask them about those moments.

“I felt left out when the kids who had committed to participating in DI or DII athletics received the attention and publicity on signing day for their accomplishments while I stood in the crowd,” said Audrey Hester, who played four years of lacrosse at Randolph-Macon College before graduating this year.  

“I felt somehow less important or accomplished than my Division I and II classmates,” said Jaime Salcedo, a junior midfielder on Medaille College’s soccer team. 

“I had nothing official to present to my friends and family,” said Jenna Ortega, a 2014 Ohio Wesleyan University graduate who played field hockey and lacrosse. “I was a little embarrassed at the time.”

Samantha Schwenke (center, bottom row), now a University of Texas at Dallas sophomore, held a small signing ceremony in high school when she committed to play volleyball for the Comets. Like all prospective Division III student-athletes, though, she was not allowed to sign any official document declaring her intent. New legislation could change that.

Future Division III student-athletes may not be burdened by the same feelings. In January at the Convention, members will vote on a proposal that would permit prospective Division III student-athletes to sign a standard, nonbinding athletics celebratory signing form, which would be crafted by the NCAA and distributed to Division III schools so they can affix it to school letterhead and provide it to the student-athletes. 

While there is strong support among student-athletes for the proposal, some coaches wish it went further. The proposal emerged from the Division III Recruiting Working Group, which was tasked, in part, with finding ways to improve coaches’ work-life balance. Marci Sanders, working group member and volleyball coach at the University of Texas at Dallas, said a binding document akin to the National Letter of Intent would save coaches valuable time. They wouldn’t be forced to continue recruiting athletes who have committed amid constant worries that other programs might poach them.  

But Steve Fritz, recruiting working group member and longtime director of athletics at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), noted that the nonbinding caveat must stay in place for the document to successfully serve its purpose. It ensures that academics, not athletics, govern Division III student-athletes’ college choices. For the same reason, the proposal includes a rule that students cannot use the form until they have been accepted to attend the institution.

Fritz said he was lukewarm on the proposal when it was first introduced, but he has changed his mind after realizing how important it is to student-athletes. And Sanders noted that many athletes who commit to her program immediately ask about signing a National Letter of Intent. She said she has frequently been embarrassed to tell them that their only option besides signing a blank piece of paper is to print and sign a document such as college admissions letters or academic scholarship offers, which are typically submitted by the student online.

The new form would change that. And, she said, student-athletes aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit. 

“Not only is it great exposure for our division, but for the university as well as the sport program,” Sanders said. “Any positive exposure helps in future recruiting efforts.”

 

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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