The Division I Syndrome: Sports and Identity

Déjà Vu

As I began my first few days as a Health & Physical Education Teacher, something seemed very familiar. I made my way to the gymnasium purposely wearing my The College of New Jersey Alumni sweater attempting to entice students into asking me about the college experience. I was eager to enlighten these energetic young men about the importance of education and the unlimited opportunities available to them during their college years. Instead, my first interactions with my students seemed very familiar. The initial questions that I was asked were, did you play basketball in college? Is The College of New Jersey Division I? Did you start on the basketball team? Is The College of New Jersey even a real school? These inquiries continued from my students as I wore apparel from other schools like Kean University, Erskine College, and Virginia State University. I could not help but think to myself, this experience seems very familiar.

Hoop Dreams: My Story

During my middle and high school years, I was a nationally ranked basketball player. Division I became a part of my vocabulary and focus at an early age. My determination and effort increased as I was invited to the prestigious Nike Basketball Camp. There, I found myself competing with and against current NBA players such as, Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls), Ishmael Smith (Philadelphia 76ers), and Spencer Hawes (Charlotte Hornets) to name a few. With letters of interest pouring in from major colleges and universities, I believed that my dream of being a Division I basketball player was becoming a reality. To substantiate my belief, I received personal phone calls from a former head coach at Stanford University among others. My family and I were convinced that I was going to be a Division I basketball player. However, my dreams of becoming a Division I student athlete took many detours and never went as planned.

Detours and Disappointments

As my athletic career unfolded, I was left without a Division I scholarship. It seemed as if my basketball goals would never become a reality. Therefore, like many other high school senior athletes who seek additional exposure, instead of enrolling in my first year of college, I attended prep school hundreds of miles away from home. The idea was to attract the attention of Division I coaches one last time. When the scholarship still did not come, I was heartbroken, embarrassed, and felt like a failure because I had worked so hard at becoming a Division I athlete. Not wanting to give up on my dreams, I tried to join the basketball team as a walk on at a Division I institution. However, walking on did not work out and once again I felt I had let myself down. Interestingly, I began to question my motives for wanting to become a Division I athlete. I wondered why my disposition seemed to be tied to the concept of Division I.

The Division I Syndrome

Becoming a Division I player seems to be rewarding; therefore, when you are a young athlete, validation from peers, coaches, parents, and colleges/university’s comes from “going D1.” It appears that if an individual does not become a Division I athlete, there is a lack of respect in that person’s athletic ability. As adults, we want to push our athletes to be the best they can possibly be, and becoming a D1 player seems to solidify success. However, we must be cognizant of the message that we may subconsciously be sending to our kids about the concept of Division I athletics. It appears for many in society, being a D1 player is the pinnacle of success for student athletes. In the sports arena, positive validation comes from being an elite Division I athlete. The perception seems to be that superior athletic achievement can only be attained through Division I status. The idea of Division I athletics and the glitz and glamour we see on TV appear to become a part of the young athlete’s identity.

Sports and Academic Identity

For many young student athletes, the fascination of being a Division I player appears to become their identity and a part of who they are as a person. For these players, Division I sports identity seems to supersede academic identity. It has been my experience in speaking with young students, sports seems to be the focus of the conversation. As I attempt to transition the conversation to academics, the discussion often loses its liveliness. Interestingly, some parents tend to put more emphasis into sports.

For example, some parents send their kids to speed camps, personal trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches. Sending your kids to athletic development training is great! However, these trainings should be accompanied with preparation in subjects like, math, science, and reading. By continuing to reinforce sports identity over academic identity, parents could be subconsciously inflicting some type of psychological damage especially, if dreams and goals of becoming a Division I player are not met. To the contrary, student athletes can be extremely successful at the Division II and Division III levels.

Division II Success

While obtaining a master’ degree from Virginia State University, I had the opportunity to work as a graduate teaching assistant in the sport management department. Working closely with one of the professors, I taught undergraduate classes as needed, facilitated lectures, and served as an assistant academic advisor. Teaching at the college level has inspired me to become a Professor of Sport Management. Furthermore, I had the privilege of being invited to serve as the moderator for the student panel at the annual Mass Communications and Sport Management Symposium. Here, I was able to meet the featured guest speaker Sharon Robinson, daughter of the legendary baseball icon Jackie Robinson. In addition to my academic accomplishments at Virginia State University, I also served as an assistant basketball coach for the women’s basketball program.

As an assistant basketball coach at Virginia State University, I had the opportunity to take on many responsibilities. I was instrumental in creating scouting reports, teaching the opposing teams offensive plays, player skill development, and strength and conditioning to name a few. My Division II coaching experience allowed me to cultivate my craft of coaching while learning from the winningest coach in school history. Coaching at VSU allowed me to use my experience as a former player to contribute to the success of the program for two seasons.

During my first season, we had seven Division I transfers in our program. These women were extremely instrumental in our 24-1 regular season record. We also achieved a #10 national Division II ranking, #1 national Division II defensive ranking, and several other accolades. It has been my experience that many student athletes would rather sit on the bench at a Division I school than to contribute significantly at a Division II program. I admire the humility that our Division I transfers showed by not allowing their pride or negative outside influences to get in the way of their Division II athletic success.

The following year, with a few of our Division I transfers remaining, we won the 2015 CIAA college basketball conference tournament. There was no greater feeling than seeing our ladies cut down the nets at The Time Warner Cable Arena, home of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. This Division II college basketball championship game was filled with thousands of spectators and was filmed on live television. Our ladies represented hard work, dedication, and ultimately a belief in the success of Division II athletics. In addition to my Division II success, Dayna Phillips credits her accomplishments to the opportunities available at a Division II institution.

Dayna Phillips, M.D., is a 2010 ESPN The Magazine Academic All District Softball Team member. She believes that her Division II student athlete experience gave her the opportunity to become excellent on the softball field, as well as, in the classroom. The University of the Sciences at Philadelphia’s competitive athletic conference and academic rigor provided her with discipline, resilience, and support. By attending USP, she was able to focus on becoming an Orthopedic Surgery resident. Dr. Phillips says that “USP enforced restrictions on team practice time unrelated to the NCAA’s practice restrictions. The school focused more on academics than athletics. The university knew that no matter how good of an athlete you were, a quality education would go further than one’s athletic ability.” Dr. Phillips credits her athletic and academic achievement to the benefits of attending a Division II institution.

Many young athletes and parents are not seeing the benefits of being a Division II student athlete. The Division II experience helped the seven Division I transfers at Virginia State University, Dayna Phillips, and me to realize that there are unlimited opportunities to be successful at the Division II level. Being involved in the Division II experience helped me to understand that I was not created to only play basketball. I was created to use my athletic ability and knowledge of sports to help others see their full potential with or without Division I status. Furthermore, the Division III student athlete experience can be extremely beneficial as well.

Division III Success

Earning a bachelor’s degree from The College of New Jersey is a major accomplishment for me. Succeeding academically at one of the country’s highly selective schools was a challenge that I was able to overcome. I achieved multiple Deans List honors while competing in a competitive Division III athletic conference. This academic accomplishment helps validate one of the many benefits of a DIII student athlete experience.

As a basketball player at TCNJ, I led my team in multiple statistical categories. I was able to accomplish being top ten in the league in points averaged, assists, free throw percentage, and three-point percentage. Division III athletic success helped me understand why I originally fell in love with the game of basketball. I became serious about basketball to be the best I could possibly be regardless of the level I was blessed to compete at.

Greater than the Game

As a middle school teacher, I realize that the adolescent years are where students are most impressionable. Teenagers are constantly trying new things in search of who they truly are. If a person is good at a sport, then their identity seems to become wrapped in their ability to be an amazing athlete. They begin to become labeled and nicknamed as the guy with the killer crossover or the girl with unbelievable three-point range. As adults, we should be careful on how we approach the concept of “D1” at an early age. Although sports can be extremely rewarding, it can also lead to low self-esteem, depression, and a feeling of lost identity if dreams and goals are not met. I believe that parents, coaches, and teachers should push athletes to reach Division I status if that is the athlete’s aspiration. The benefits of Division II and Division III athletics should be emphasized as well. When an athlete’s playing days come to an end or if they do not become a Division I player, my hope is that they will know that their identity is not tied to their athletic ability.

Confidence, leadership, and resilience are a few skills learned from competing in sports. These transferable skills can contribute to a successful career as a Professor, Doctor, Coach, General Manager and many other professions. As educators, coaches, and parents it is important to help young athletes reach their dreams athletically at any level. However, it is vital to guide young athletes in reaching their full academic potential.

Now, when a student says to me, “Mr. Smalls, can you help me work on my game?” I help them become the best they can possibly be and go as far as they can go — athletically. Most importantly, I work on their mind and the way they think about the game. It is great if an athlete is enamored with a sport. However, I believe the focus should be to help them find their purpose within the sport in addition to being a player. It would be most beneficial to guide students into being a scholar in the classroom and allow athletics to be accompanied with their academic ability. I firmly believe that as educators, coaches, and parents, our goal should be to help young men and women prosper to become greater than the game.