Warch and sports: a marriage in movement

Tariq Engineer

President Warch has never been one to shy away from a subject, and college sports is no exception. I sat down to talk to him about the place of sports at a liberal arts college in general, and at Lawrence in particular. Like Henry Wriston before him, President Warch believes that sport is a basic part of a liberal arts education – “A liberal arts education is fundamentally about experience, not simply a matter of taking this class, or majoring in that field. Sports, especially at the Division III level, is also fundamentally about experience.” Sports, then, fits neatly into the philosophy of a liberal arts college.

So it’s no surprise that President Warch sees the athletics program as an essential part of the educational program here at LU. “Sports”, says Warch “isn’t an auxiliary enterprise [at Lawrence], as is the case at some institutions. Since a large fraction of the student body is involved in sports, we can say that sports is a part of the educational program here without torturing the facts. The student athlete is a real thing at our kind of institution.”

And President Warch does not believe that excellence in the classroom and excellence on the field are mutually exclusive at a school with the academic standards of Lawrence. Warch cites his own alma mater, Williams College, as an example. At the same time, Warch says it is important not to place too great an emphasis on winning. He wants to draw a fine line between winning and being competitive, “A team can be competitive without winning. Obviously you want the students who are participating in sports to be successful, and the traditional way of measuring success is wins and losses. But there can be too much emphasis placed on winning, and that can distract from the experience, both for the coaches and the players.”

Warch isn’t trying to de-emphasize winning, it’s just that wanting to win too much can detract from the experience of playing a sport. Warch’s main concern is that the students remember that they are representing Lawrence, and therefore conduct themselves honorably at all times.

President Warch see a fundamental difference between Division I sports and Division III sports. Warch feels that at the Division I level athletes are treated like an “elite warrior class” for whom much is done and much excused. And instead of treating the problem, the NCAA keeps adding rules on top of rules that merely circumscribe the problem, without dealing with it directly.

It is in an effort to end the preferential treatment given to athletes that President Warch would like to see an end to talent scholarships at all levels of college sports. In addition, Warch does not think athletics should be run on the side, where the receipts from one or two big games help pay for the program. When that happens, the incentive to skirt the edges of the rules is enormous because the payoff is enormous

The lack of a business side to Division III athletics is why President Warch believes that Division III is the last bastion of amateur athletics. However he cautions us not to take this fact for granted; “Division III needs people to articulate and respect the values of amateur sport and academic integrity. Otherwise it is a slippery slope.”

Of course none of this is to say that Division III has no problems of its own. As President Warch points out, it has its own set of challenges:

” The problem about Division III is that it has turned into a catch-all division for all kinds of colleges. It was started to accommodate colleges like Lawrence University but now colleges that used to belong to the NAIA, having dropped out of the NAIA, and not wanting to get into the athletic scholarship game, have moved to Division III. Thus you have colleges with five or six times the enrollment of Lawrence playing in the same Division.” This is clearly an inequitable situation. Here again President Warch has been active in pushing a reform agenda that contains a proposal for a Division IIIa or Division IV that would be comprised of colleges like Lawrence.

Another problem facing Division III schools is that the student athletes should have the same or a similar profile to the student body at large. However, as the president is quick to point out once again, the personal sense of self of a number of individuals is tied up in athletics, and colleges like Lawrence need to respect that. And while Lawrence cannot cater to every individual and every sport, it does have one of the largest sports programs of any college in its conference.

At the same time Warch says, “We should never turn down a ‘better student’ to get a ‘better athlete.'” At Lawrence the coaches can recruit students, i.e. they can get them into the pipeline, but the coaches are not part of the admission decision-making process. Thus while the coaches have input on who applies to Lawrence, they do not have a say in who gets admitted to Lawrence.

Last but not least, President Warch addressed the issue of student apathy towards sports here at Lawrence, “Students weren’t apathetic to the basketball team” said the President with a smile. More seriously though, the president has the opinion that part of the problem is physical, with Alexander Gym and the playing fields all located away from the main Lawrence Campus. “It’s unfortunate that the campus is bifurcated in such a manner, but the fact that it is, I think, inhibits students from going to games” The president also said apathy is a distributed problem, and not confined to athletes, e.g. those on LUCC will tell you that students are apathetic towards student government.

In short, the president sees an athletics program as fundamental to a liberal arts school like Lawrence, and the athletics program should at the very least be competitive. At the same time the academic integrity of the institution should never be compromised in the pursuit of athletic endeavor.