Why A Signing Day for D3 Athletes Matters
When I was a senior in high school in 2013, I saw graduation as the end of my time as a student-athlete. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to run after high school. I just didn’t have the times to be a Division I athlete, I’d never heard of redshirting, and I thought it was the natural order of things: those not of Division I caliber hand in their uniforms after senior track season and join the thousands of college students who only work out to stay in shape. But then I began exchanging emails about running for a Division III school. Initially, Division III running just seemed like an extension of high school—there would be girls faster than me and slower than me, and I’d have practice in the afternoons. It was this nonchalant take on Division III athletics that allowed me to be genuinely happy for my good friend and teammate on her signing day for the University of Illinois; her times had rocketed her into the upper echelon of distance runners in the state our senior year, and she absolutely deserved a special time and place to publicly pledge her commitment to the U of I program. And yet, I thought, watching her surrounded by friends and family, with the school photographer clicking away, I admitted to myself it would be cool to experience that “signing” feeling too.
Two years later, in November of 2015, the NCAA released an official “commitment letter” for students planning to continue their athletic endeavors at the Division III level. Unlike Division I and II signings, the Division III signing is non-binding and symbolizes the athlete’s public commitment to compete in their sport at the college level. The non-binding feature was included to emphasize the importance of academics in a recruit’s Division III school of choice, setting it apart from other signings where the athlete and the student can easily be separated and athletic obligations may demand precedence over academic ones.
Although the non-binding feature of the Division III commitment level is frustrating for coaches—who are most directly impacted if a recruit has a change of heart—I appreciate the NCAA’s decision to maintain that Division III athletes are students first. I participated in cross country and track and field for three and a half years at Kenyon, with a semester abroad where I had the opportunity to expand myself academically and rediscover myself as an athlete. Division III athletics gave me the opportunity to athletically better myself while also reaping external rewards for the characteristics that athletics imbues people with, something that is only possible because of the myriad of student-athlete balances individuals may choose to strike.
On one end of the Division III spectrum, competing at the collegiate level is “just” a way to stay in shape and make friends, and this allows for an intense academic focus in a way that fosters healthy study habits—the chunks of time that are carved out in the day for cross country or track practice mean that the window of time to work—and procrastinate—is narrowed and therefore easier to organize. On the other end, competing at the collegiate level offers the opportunity for elite high school athletes to join a larger pool of talent and push themselves beyond their previous capabilities. And then there is a vast group of people in the middle that I count myself a part of: a group with varying levels of ability who come into D3 athletics not entirely sure what it means to be a Division III athlete, or what kind of collegiate athlete we wanted to be—but happy to be a part of a college team nonetheless.
What the Division III commitment letter effectively does is recognize the potential rewards that athletes can reap as people outside of their sport; it’s non-binding feature proclaims that by signing, the student sees that success in school and sport are linked. In particular, the distinct discipline, camaraderie, and empathy for others that running fosters are traits that manifest outside of cross country or track, but competing as a Division III athlete offers opportunities for this manifestation to occur naturally and give people a greater sense of what they offer to the world as a person after graduating and leaving behind college running.
While I’ll always wistfully remember my friend’s signing day, I do think that being one of the last graduating classes to not have a signing day gives me a certain appreciation for the event. Now, when I remember my friend’s signing day, I don’t remember it as something vaguely sad that detracted from my own athletic experience and abilities, but as something that all high school runners and athletes going on to pursue their sport at the Division III level deserve as well. The friends, family, and photographer present were there to celebrate years of dedication, triumph over disappointment, and personal growth—attributes that all athletes who compete for sheer love of running share. But what makes Division III uniquely worthy of a signing day isn’t in the similarities between all collegiate athletes, but in the differences. Division III runners span a vast spectrum of ability, but all of us participate because we want to. We have no incentive beyond the endorphin rush, synchronized footfalls during long runs, the sweet pain of finishing an interval, and the teammates who hold us in our brightest moments of joy and sharpest moments of pain. A signing for a Division III athlete is a declaration of understanding that our sport does at times take more than it gives, and in those moments, we may feel like spectators in our own lives, wondering when it’s going to be our day. But when we sign our name, we say we understand that it’s all part of the process, that we are entitled to nothing, and that we are proud to proclaim that we will continue to do what we love.