Before John Wooden coached basketball superstars at UCLA, the Bruins competed against the Sagehens and four other schools as a member of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC). Their presence was short-lived, leaving the conference after just 8 years. During that brief stint, UCLA played 12 football games against Pomona. The Sagehens were victorious, compiling a 6-5-1 record against the team that currently competes against Division I schools at the Rose Bowl stadium—yes, we made them leave.
While geographical proximity is the only thing that ties UCLA and Pomona together these days, their shared history tells us that there was a time when athletics at both big and small schools encouraged “the highest ideals of amateur sports in an environment of high academic standards.”
But times have changed. UCLA, the school that once went head-to-head with the Sagehens, is part of the newly adjusted Pac-12 conference that receives lucrative TV deals and enjoys massive ticket sales. UCLA is part of the NCAA Divison I, which generated $8.7 billion in revenue last year. Questions have surfaced about whether college sports have abandoned their scholar-athlete ideal and become a ruthless money-making vehicle that exploits students. The sheer amount of money changing hands suggests that college athletics no longer lives up to its amateur roots; it has become a professional business.
“Conference realignment is simply based on greed and profit,” said Roger Caron, Pomona-Pitzer’s head football coach.
Conference realignment has recently become a hotly contested issue, as D-I schools like Syracuse and Pittsburgh joined the ACC in search of larger TV deals through participation in a larger conference. Other big schools are shifting allegiances for economic reasons as well, disrupting traditional rivalries and arousing the ire of fans.
In a cover article for the October issue of the Atlantic titled the The Shame of College Sports, Taylor Branch explained how the NCAA is driven by fundamentally financial motives. Stories of student athletes violating regulations and skipping classes, which have become too rampant for the media to ignore, underscore the larger problem of collegiate athletics. There are lawsuits filed to allow student athletes to be compensated for their increasingly valuable services, indicating that the real issue is about the commercialization of sports and how the NCAA has become a business, not an organization.
Division III, meanwhile, is free from financial influences, presenting an alternative to the conundrum facing D-I programs. D-III restricts schools from offering scholarships to attract athletes, and there are no corporate sponsorship deals at this level. Athletes in general seem to be motivated by a singular desire to play their game without any monetary compensation.
If anything, the D-III system shows that the idea of amateur sports is still a viable concept. In an editorial on the NCAA Division III web page, Ron Thomas wrote, “Perhaps most important, Division III student-athletes have the highest graduation rates of the three divisions.” He added, “Division III offers up the ideal embodiment of the true student-athlete.”
The recent addition of Chapman to SCIAC also illustrates how conference realignment in colleges could be better conducted, even at different divisions within the NCAA.
“Conferences are typically founded to combine institutions with like goals for athletics programming,” explained Michael Sutton, CMS Director of Athletics. “[The addition of Chapman] will raise the competitive bar in most sports, making success in SCIAC competition even more worthy.”
The processes of conference shifts ensure that athletic programs in SCIAC serve the best academic interest of the colleges. Chapman initially decided to shift to SCIAC 20 years ago with the purpose of creating a football team and adding more women’s sports. It represents the core of what college sports should be about, creating different venues for athletes to compete in and promoting the model student athlete. It is a system that is certainly far removed from the commercial spirit that has come to significantly influence Division I.
As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “There’s too much leaning toward the athlete-student, in my opinion, rather than the student-athlete.”
College sports and the role of its players have been redefined as money has increasingly made sports the most important facet for some colleges, and the academic mission in these schools is slowly being replaced by the cult of commercial sports. In that sense, SCIAC and D-III may be the model that can save NCAA from becoming another enterprise.