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Publish date: Aug 18, 2010

Commentary: Football is more than a game for campuses

By Thomas V. Chema

It’s August, and for us fans, that means it’s finally time for football season to start.

At our small, liberal arts college of 1,200 students in Hiram, Ohio, football (not LeBron James) is king – never mind last year’s 0-10 record.

While our football team has definitely struggled in recent years, we continue to invest in and promote the sport. Why is football – perhaps more than any other sport – so important to Hiram College?

First of all, athletics is critical to recruiting students. With 100 upperclassmen on the roster and 46 first-year athletes trying out this month, most of these young men come to Hiram because they want to play college football. And it is significant for us that even those who don’t make the team or decide not to play all four years usually stay and graduate.

To be honest, we always need more men. Nationally, females make up 57 percent of college students compared to 43 percent males, which is similar to Hiram’s enrollment of 55 percent women and 45 percent men. Those gender-gap statistics make our male student-athletes even more important. I once asked our very successful women’s volleyball coach what I could do to enhance her program. Without missing a beat, she replied, “Recruit tall men.”

Second, all our teams add spirit and excitement to campus. Games, matches and meets are a key part of Hiram’s social life. Because an incredible 40 percent – or about 400 Hiram men and women – play on at least one of our 14 teams, everyone at the college is touched by athletics in some way. (At most Division III schools, one in five students participates in sports.)

Here’s an example. Four years ago, a group of music students came to me and wanted to start a marching band to play at football games. Today, we have 40 musicians and drill team members decked out in new uniforms and having fun performing at both football and basketball games. Like our athletes, these students wanted to continue “playing” in college, and we are thrilled to be able to offer this opportunity.

I am convinced that sports programs have a greater impact on the student body and culture at our small schools than they do at the mega-universities where football stadiums tower over the rest of the campus.

Finally, I believe Hiram is fortunate to be one of the nearly 450 NCAA Division III schools where academics are put first and athletics second. NCAA regulations do not allow Division III schools to give financial aid based on athletics merit.

Dan Dutcher, vice president for Division III, told a group at Hiram earlier this year that too many people think the only thing Division III means is “no scholarships,” ignoring the positive benefits. What Hiram College and Division III really focus on is proportion in the lives of our student-athletes, comprehensive learning by our student-athletes, passion, responsibility, sportsmanship and citizenship.

Athletics teaches teamwork, time-management skills and discipline, all necessary for success in life. Many of our athletes do receive academic scholarships, so they know very well that studying and getting good grades must be their top priority.

Why football? It’s an important part of the package. As one of our alums once told me, “I was a jock when I came to Hiram College to play football, but I graduated as a student-athlete.”

Thomas V. Chema is president of Hiram College. This commentary appeared originally in the online version of the Akron Beacon Journal.