Athletics and its Role


President William "Bro" Adams considers the longstanding place of athletics at Colby, and the role sports play in student life

By William D. Adams

This year the Colby C Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary. It's a remarkable milestone for any organization, but it is especially meaningful in light of the depth and importance of the history of athletics at Colby.

Our athletic programs had humble origins. In their earliest days, teams were supported entirely by those who played on them. Students recruited and paid coaches, devised competition schedules and practiced when and where they could. The first intercollegiate contest in which Colby participated was a croquet match versus Bowdoin, and no one bothered to record the score.

The College now supports 32 varsity teams and nearly a dozen club teams. The Colby-Bowdoin football rivalry, dating back to 1892, is the third oldest in Division III. Among proud firsts, Colby (thanks to the persistence of students) was one of the first colleges to organize a varsity women's ice hockey team. Last year, women's crew became the first NCAA champion team in College history, adding to an impressive number of individual championships earned over the years.

As proud as we are of the competitive accomplishments of our students, the important thing to remember is that Colby supports its teams not primarily because they bring luster to the College, enjoyment to fans and pride to alumni/ae, though they do, and all of these things are good. We do it because we want to create opportunities for students to experience the educational outcomes that athletics almost uniquely provide.

Participation in athletics fosters mental and physical discipline and toughness, experiences of teamwork and close community provided by common challenges, a sense of fair play, the capacity to persevere and succeed in conditions of extraordinary pressure and challenge (physical, mental and emotional) and the knowledge of a particular kind of excellence. Athletics also provide important opportunities for creating balance in the context of academic life. And they create the same kinds of close student-faculty interaction that our teaching faculty members prize.

In these ways, athletics at Colby embody the broader mission and guiding tenets of the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. Across the educational program, we have been and will remain a student-centered institution. Teaching is our first duty, and we are committed to making certain our students are developing in the ways we have identified as crucial to the whole person. These ways include, prominently, the notions of intellectual breadth and balance. Against the grain of much of contemporary life, our mission continues to insist on broad exposure to the principal forms of human understanding and to the development of fundamental intellectual capacities that we believe form the basis for a creative and engaged life in the world beyond Colby.

Within that context, some aspects of the recent evolution of intercollegiate athletics and the athletic culture of the country are worrisome.

We know, for instance, that the meaning and standards of athletic excellence have changed hugely over the past several decades. These changes are in great measure the result of the specialization that is now endemic to athletics generally. Young people concentrate more and more on single sports and increasingly on single skill sets within particular sports. At the same time, and not surprisingly, coaching also has become more specialized, both following and leading the evolution of sports and talents.

The results at Colby and beyond are several. Athletes tend to be more focused on individual sports than ever before, and the time commitments are more demanding. It is increasingly uncommon for coaches to teach multiple sports with comparable confidence, ease or interest. Multiple head-coaching assignments have declined steadily at Colby and across the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), and there is pressure to follow the Division I single-sport coaching model.

A second important national development is the dramatically increased scope and intensity of competition. At the collegiate level, the upward pressures on season length and on non-traditional season practice opportunities have been intense.

In this regard, few things compare in impact to the growth of the importance of the NCAA championships on the aspirations of players and coaches alike. The NESCAC did not permit NCAA post-season team play until 1993. In the short time since that decision, success at this ultimate level has become an important measure of programmatic quality and achievement. The size and complexity of Division III,more than 400 institutions,make this competitive aspiration particularly challenging.

What's wrong with specialization and escalating competitive intensity? The answers point back to the athletic ideal in a liberal arts setting and forward to unsettling trends that seem to conflict with that ideal. Consider the following:

Recruitment: Competitive success in athletics at Colby and in NESCAC is requiring intense and specialized forms of recruiting. The associated pressures on coaches and admission officers are significant. Coaches spend more and more time recruiting, and there is increasing pressure on admission officers to meet coaches' precise needs. The statistics are compelling. Among members of the class that entered Colby in 1993, approximately 31 percent of those who participated in our athletic programs were actively recruited by coaches during the admission process. For the class entering in 2001, that number had grown to 55 percent for all sports, and to fully 70 percent in "high-profile" sports (football, ice hockey and basketball). The "walk-on",a phenomenon integral to the history of the athletic ideal and its sense of opportunity and learning,is becoming a thing of the past.

The Athletic/Academic Divide: Faculty and coaches alike are reporting a widening divide between their respective spheres of activity. The pressures of coaching in the recruitment-intensive contemporary atmosphere have limited the participation of coaching staff in campus-wide activities, including service on faculty and College committees. And faculty, feeling their own sorts of pressures, are less and less understanding of the athletic program and its educational values and outcomes.

Performance: In 2002-03, Colby athletes earned 38 national, regional and NESCAC academic honors, and for three years running the men's soccer squad has earned the National Soccer Coaches Association Team Academic Award. But a recent study of NESCAC and the Ivy League, Reclaiming the Game, by William Bowen and Sarah Levin, demonstrated academic "underperformance" among some student-athletes in those conferences. From that study and a replication of it at Colby, we learned that we are no exception. Underperformance is a measure of the difference between predicted and actual performance in the classroom. We are not sure yet how to explain this phenomenon, but the studies raise concerns about time commitments and other factors that may be affecting the academic performance of some student-athletes.

There are encouraging signs of national interest in dealing with specialization and escalating competitive pressures, including reform measures being proposed by the NCAA itself at the Division III level. Those measures include restrictions on length of season, red-shirting, financial aid and other measures. While none of these changes will affect NESCAC dramatically (our policies already are the most restrictive in the nation), the call to reform being made within the governing body of intercollegiate athletics is significant.

In addition, the NESCAC presidents have been involved for three years in constructive conversations about how best to deal with several issues at the conference level, including common approaches to recruiting and ways of assessing learning outcomes across the conference. Mutual commitment to addressing these issues within the NESCAC will be essential to institutional competitiveness (a key ingredient in the educational process) in the context of a level playing field within the conference.

At Colby we are actively pursuing ways of ensuring that all our student-athletes achieve academic success in the ways that they and we expect and deserve. In the spring semester of 2003, I appointed the Task Force on Athletic Recruiting and Academic Performance, which made several recommendations about how we might better serve our student-athletes. Among other things the task force recommended ways in which prospective student-athletes can be better acquainted with Colby's academic programs, processes which would involve coaches more closely in the monitoring of academic performance, and ways in which student team leaders can support athletes in their academic efforts. We also are encouraging faculty to take a more active role and interest in athletics and to view that program as a fundamental dimension of the educational program for many of our students.

Our touchstone in all these efforts should be the athletic ideal that is so strongly part of Colby's history and that, more generally, is unique in higher education in this country. The goal is not to de-emphasize athletics but to revitalize the educational vision and commitments that have inspired us to provide generations of Colby students with challenging competitive opportunities that nurture their fullest intellectual development.