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For the love of the game, some players place emphasis on giving back: John Garvey

University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow looks to throw a pass during the the NCAA Sugar Bowl football game in 2011. (CNS photo/Misty McElroy, Reuters) (Jan. 27, 2010) See CBS-AD Jan. 27, 2010.

We began our football season Sept. 7 with a loss in double overtime to Kenyon College, the alma mater of President Rutherford B. Hayes. It was a beautiful day for football. It would have been perfect, but for the score. It left me down in the dumps for about six hours afterward.

But here is something interesting: I found, on reflection, that I was disappointed mainly for our players and coach. They had a rough season last year and have been rebuilding. The opening game was a muffed opportunity to turn the page. They will have to find a way to revive their spirits before the next game against Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Catholic University of America is a NCAA Division III school. That means we don’t give athletic scholarships. I used to work at Division I schools — Kentucky, Michigan, Notre Dame, Boston College. Their athletic programs are famous for basketball, football and hockey. They give scholarships and concierge treatment to the young athletes they recruit.

John Garvey
John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, writes the Catholic News Service column “Intellect and Virtue.” (CNS photo/ courtesy of The Catholic University of America)

Division I schools are routinely featured on national television and covered in the sports pages of metropolitan newspapers. Our loss to Kenyon got only a paragraph in The Washington Post, buried several pages in. The Los Angeles Times didn’t notice it at all.

But to come back to the interesting thing: When I taught at those Division I schools, a loss might have put me into a funk, but in a very different way. It had nothing to do with the players — on the contrary, I held them responsible for ruining my day. Winning at basketball (or whatever) was tied up with my sense of self-worth, and with the school’s. I felt I was somehow more important as a professor for being associated with the national champion.

This is stupid. The coaches’ poll is not a very good measure of academic quality. The government’s Federal Graduation Rate tracks athletes’ success in school. The graduation rate for the 2014-2017 cohort of Division I men’s basketball players was 47%. For football, it was 58% to 62%, depending on the subdivision. At most schools (Notre Dame and BC are outliers) these rates lag far behind the rest of the student body.

At Catholic University, by contrast, our athletes tend to be our best students. They graduate at a higher rate than the rest of the student body — and most years this includes the basketball and football players.

They are also exceptionally nice young people. I don’t face the same kind of worries as Division I college presidents, about high-profile athletes disgracing the university by their behavior off the field.

This year, the Division III administrators gave our athletes their Community Service Award for work around the city on MLK Day. More than 500 athletes and coaches took part. The next month, our football team won a prize for their support of the Special Olympics. The coach had to take the Polar Plunge.

I don’t mean to imply that our players take their sport less seriously. Most of them were stars on their high school teams. They play for Catholic and practice 20 hours a week because they love the game. But that’s really all that’s in it for them. They don’t get scholarships. They’re not on television. They don’t have a future in the NFL. On cold days, there aren’t enough fans to fill the stadium, and they play to muted applause.

But they’re not playing for us. They are playing for one another and because it’s fun. That’s why I felt bad for them, rather than for myself.

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Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.