Bitter cold. Howling wind. Snowstorms. That is what winter consists of in the northeast. Baseball is not meant to be played in the snow. It is not meant for the cold. It is meant to be played under blue skies with the sun beaming down, not with frostbitten hands but rather with tan lines and sunburn. Baseball is the game of summer, but unfortunately, college baseball doesn’t have time to wait for the seasons to change.

With games starting in late February and early March, many college baseball teams located in the northeast head south during their spring break to take advantage of the warm Florida sun. The Muhlenberg College baseball team is no different. The excitement of finally escaping the cold and being able to step onto a field that isn’t covered in snow is obvious. But what isn’t so obvious is the cost, which the school doesn’t cover, to play in the Sunshine State which runs around $1,000 per student athlete. The spring break trip is just scratching the surface of the financial sacrifice required of student athletes to play a sport at the Division III, or D3, level. This is not a baseball issue or Muhlenberg issue, it’s an issue for all D3 athletes.

According to the NCAA, there are over 190,000 D3 athletes competing at 450 different institutions, and it is the largest of the three NCAA divisions in terms of the number of participating athletes and schools.  Do all college athletes receive some sort of athletic scholarship or funding assistance to play their desired sport? Absolutely not. D3 institutions do not reward players with athletic scholarships, and the students can only receive academic scholarships or financial aid to offset their tuition expenses. D1 athletes could potentially go to school for free because of their athletic talents while D2 athletes receive athletic scholarships and other forms of aid, just not to the same extent of D1. Already at a financial disadvantage and with smaller athletic budgets compared to the larger athletic programs in other divisions, D3 athletes and their families are usually left spending their own money to support their athletic careers.

For a player who is on a team for all four years of college, it may cost them an extra $6,000 just to suit up and play

Not every student athlete is aware of potential costs they will have to front themselves, especially when those costs run into quadruple digits as they often do for D3 athletes. Not every player is able to afford a hefty expense just to play a sport, on top of the cost of tuition, textbooks, and living expenses. This is a tough spot for coaches to be in because they are trying to recruit the best players on the field to come play for them. Recruiting players who actually can afford to play their chosen sport is an added obstacle at the D3 level. “I do talk about this with potential commits, but I still think they are a little shocked as freshmen when they see the grand total with the online store,” said Muhlenberg softball coach Molly Rathbun. “That is when there biggest upfront cost is because they are purchasing things like their helmet, bat bag, travel suit, practice shirt and shorts, that won’t be purchased again in their four years.”  Softball receives the highest portion of the NCAA’s D3 budget, just under 14 percent of $11,193,550. If a sport receiving $1,563,000 has trouble with expenses for its players, this might suggest an underlying issue of NCAA revenue not making its way to its players.

Should college athletes receive financial compensation for their efforts on the field? NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thinks so. “We still have to be vigilant against all forms of exploitation so that by condoning one form, we don’t implicitly condone others. Which is why, in the name of fairness, we must bring an end to the indentured servitude of college athletes and start paying them what they are worth,” wrote Abdul-Jabbar in an essay he discussing the topic.  He has been vocal publicly about his displeasures with the NCAA’s treatment of their athletes. And he is not alone. During the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the NCAA reported revenue of over $1 billion dollars.  The NCAA sells tickets, jerseys, apparel, and even photographs of the athletes, and none of the money is ever distributed back to student athletes. They see none of it. Those who are against the idea paying college athletes argue they are getting paid in terms of scholarships and sometimes free tuition. However, the money some of these athletes generate for their respective schools and the NCAA far exceeds the cost of their tuition. They risk injury every time they step out onto the field, putting their bodies and futures on the line only to have their talents exploited by a billion dollar organization that is supposed to act in the student athlete’s best interest. And for D3 athletes, they don’t even get the benefit of an athletic scholarship.

Coaches are expected to be upfront about everything with their recruits and their athletes, from playing time to campus life to playing expenses. Lynn Tubman, the athletic director at Muhlenberg College, understands the importance of this transparency especially when the out-of-pocket costs of playing a sport at Muhlenberg and similar D3 schools are extremely high. “The cost of playing is something we have discussed within the department,” said Tubman. “We recognize the importance of strong communication with our prospects and committed student athletes. We understand the commitment our families are making to send a student to Muhlenberg and it is important that students understand the expectations of each coach and program.” This is not an issue at the higher NCAA divisions because their athletic departments are capable of funding almost everything for their players. Essentially, D3 students are punished financially for wanting to play a sport purely for the love of the game.

Spending some extra money out their own pockets to play their sport may be a valuable trade-off which allows students to focus more on academics and their commitment to the classroom. D3 athletes have a graduation rate approximately five percent higher than the overall student body. D3 student athletes have a graduation rate of 87 percent, the same as D1 athletes and 15 percent higher than D2 student athletes. Playing a sport in college exposes students to valuable life skills-: strong time management skills, leadership experience, working together with individuals from diverse backgrounds. D3 athletes have more time than D1 or D2 athletes because of their less rigorous athletic schedules, allowing them to fully maximize their resources at their school. Studies have shown these student athletes report active academic engagement and participation in academic “extras,” such as research with faculty, study abroad opportunities and senior thesis projects.

They risk injury every time they step out onto the field…and they don’t even get the benefit of an athletic scholarship.

Trevor Lee is a senior baseball player at Suffolk University, a D3 institution. He always had aspirations of playing the game he loves in college. Early morning practices, long hours of training, and countless years of hard work consumed his life for one purpose: to continue his playing career past high school. He too has sat on a plane destined for the south, but only after making a financial expenditure to join the rest of his teammates for spring break.

According to Lee, the players at Suffolk each pay $1,500 per year out of pocket.  The money goes towards their spring break trip to Florida as well as their gear and practice attire. “The $1,500 per season was not communicated during the recruitment process,” explained Lee. “But I had a general idea. Considering I was playing D3 at a private university, I assumed I would have to dig into my pocket a little bit here and there for some things.” For a player who is on a team for all four years of college, it may cost them an extra $6,000 just to suit up and play a game most have been involved with since they were five years old. 

The financial commitment to play a sport at the D3 level is an aspect of the recruitment process that does and should go into college decisions for student athletes across the county. Despite its high costs, over 190,000 D3 students make the sacrifice each and every year. Why? Because it’s an experience like no other. Lee and D3 athletes everywhere pay the high costs to live out a dream many of them had when they first picked up a bat as a child. Though sometimes unaffordable for some families, those who can afford the yearly expenses are given an opportunity to create lifelong memories and friendships. This opportunity should never be taken for granted because it is truly a blessing. As a current D3 athlete myself, I don’t regret a second of my college athletic experience. And neither does Trevor Lee.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget, and it has taught me so much in a short amount of time,” says Lee.

“I absolutely think every dollar was worth it.”

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