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By Gary Brown
ADA, Ohio – “We may be paying a high price to play, but learning how to do the two things that we love – excelling in competition and in the classroom – is worth every penny of Division III sports.”
That’s from Ohio Northern volleyball student-athlete Jayce Born, a criminal justice and psychology major who was among six student-athlete panelists at an April 14 symposium on the Division III student-athlete experience hosted by the 3,500-student school in northwest Ohio.
Testimonials from Born and other student-athletes from Ohio Northern and nearby Heidelberg portrayed young men and women who are passionate about their sports, driven to excel in the classroom and sometimes challenged by what it takes to do both.
“We give everything we can on the field and then turn right around and spend sleepless nights preparing for the classroom,” said Polar Bears offensive lineman Patrick Dochenetz, a senior marketing major who as a medical redshirt still has one year of eligibility remaining. “To play Division III, you are completely committed to your sport and to your school.”
“At the end of the day, it’s all worth it,” said Heidelberg basketball player and accounting major Derrick Flynn.
Just what “it” is was the subject of “Paying the Price to Play,” which was sponsored by Ohio Northern’s history, politics and justice department and the office of multicultural affairs. About 100 people – mostly students, student-athletes and faculty members – attended.
The symposium consisted of two panels, one a collection of coaches and administrators and the other the student-athlete group. While the “adults” talked about expectations, the “kids” discussed meeting them.
Gabriel Washington, a football player at Ohio Northern who is pursuing a pharmacy degree, said every student who goes to Ohio Northern will be challenged by a demanding major – a reality that is compounded for athletes, he said.
“Our professors require a lot from us all, whether you’re an athlete or not,” said Washington. “But for athletes, our coaches are like another set of professors. This is their job, and they require a lot from us.”
In his symposium remarks, Ohio Northern football student-athlete Pat Dochenetz cited the following testimonial from Cornell College baseball player Sean Somsin, which was published in the school paper in 1999:
“It’s not about getting a scholarship, getting drafted or making SportsCenter. It’s a deep need in us that comes from the heart. We need to practice, to play, to lift, to hustle, to sweat. We do it all for our teammates and for the student in our calculus class that we don’t even know.
“We don’t practice with a future Major League first baseman; we practice with a future sports agent. We don’t lift weights with a future Olympic wrestler; we lift with a future doctor. We don’t run with a future Wimbledon champion; we run with a future CEO.
“It’s a bigger part of us than our friends and family can understand. Sometimes we play for 2,000 fans; sometimes 25. But we still play hard. You cheer for us because you know us. You know more than just our names. Like all of you, we are students first.
“We don’t sign autographs. But we do sign graduate school applications, MCAT exams and student body petitions. When we miss a kick or strike out, we don’t let down an entire state. We let down only our teammates, coaches and fans. But the hurt is still the same.
“We train hard, lift, throw, run, kick, tackle, shoot, dribble and lift some more, and in the morning we go to class. And in that class we are nothing more than students. It’s about pride – in ourselves, in our school.
“It’s about our love and passion for the game. And when it’s over, when we walk off that court or field for the last time, our hearts crumble. Those tears are real. But deep down inside, we are very proud of ourselves.
“We will forever be what few can claim ... college athletes.”
In that vein, all of the student-athlete panelists talked about their sports participation as just another class – albeit a demanding one – which fits the integration of athletics and education that NCAA schools emphasize. But they also referred to the learning that athletics participation uniquely provides: how to manage time, set goals, be accountable and disciplined, realize capabilities, and build relationships.
They also cited their sports participation as a way to relieve their academic stress.
“It was nice at times to take my frustrations out on somebody else,” linebacker Washington quipped.
At the same time, not one of them skirted the reality of how much work is involved and, at times, what sacrifices they have to make to compete.
Born talked about crawling out of bed in the early morning for preseason workouts and “waddling” to the gym because she was so sore from the previous day’s practice. “And then you get to when classes start and life becomes even more complicated,” she said.
That’s not unique to Division III student-athletes. Neither is striving for excellence in all aspects, which appears to be in most student-athletes’ DNA, regardless of division. Born corroborated previous NCAA research in fact when she said student-athletes tend to fill whatever free time they have by honing their athletics craft even more. “That’s what’s built into our lives,” she said.
As for the administrative panel, members celebrated student-athlete accomplishments but were less positive about various aspects of the enterprise. For example, Heidelberg men’s basketball coach Anthony Gholson, who used to play at Ohio Northern, held up the NCAA Manual and noted how complicated the rules have become over time, even for Division III.
Capital University track coach Fred Barends lamented the anonymity of Division III sports, especially since most schools play in the shadows of larger Division I powers. His university is in Columbus, where a certain state school grabs all the attention.
Meanwhile, Ohio Northern faculty athletics representative Paul Govekar worried that student-athletes are too specialized at an early age and that by the time they get to college they’re not encouraged to experience all that the campus has to offer.
But the student-athletes were more upbeat about their own experiences.
“I have friends who had scholarships to play sports at Division I and Division II schools. Would I have wanted what some of my friends have at other places?” said Dochenetz. “To me, being able to play with the people here at Ohio Northern and share the camaraderie and to learn in the classroom and get a degree that I earned is above all the greatest thing.”
His teammate Washington agreed. “When you come here, your major is No. 1 and your sport is a bonus,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity. College athletics is not for everyone, but I’m glad I got to do it.”