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Honing Athletic Skills, Academics at Community Colleges

Six seconds are left on the clock. A timeout is taken by the home coach, ready to strategize the next offensive play. The band loudly plays the fight song as the cheerleaders perform partner stunts. The crowd is divided with the hometown group — the overwhelming majority of the audience — clapping, yelling chants and stomping their feet; the other team’s fans are quiet, waiting nervously with anticipation. The horn blares, and the ball is inbounded to the point guard who dribbles around a high screen, turns toward the basket, and shoots a three-point shot from the top of the key.

As the clock winds down to zero, the ball hits nothing but net. A loud cheer ascends from the home crowd. As the opposing coaches and players congratulate one another on a game well played, the crowd is jumping up and down and yelling: “WE won!” The next day, the college is buzzing as everyone reads the headline in the campus newspaper, “WE did it!”

You may think that this sounds like a typical basketball game between two top Division I universities, but actually this same scene is played out on community colleges throughout the country.

You may be surprised to learn that, as reported in the Community College Enterprise, nearly 60 percent of community colleges field athletic teams, with approximately 11 percent of male and 5 percent of female full-time community college students (or roughly 72,000 community college students) participating in an average of seven athletic teams per community college. Rural community colleges are more likely to offer athletics than urban community colleges.

One benefit of developing a community college athletics program is that it provides student-athletes with an opportunity to hone their athletic skills while earning a college education. Dr. Don Cameron, president of Guilford Technical Community College (N.C.) and a former junior college baseball player, explained in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Athletics is just one more way of offering extracurricular opportunities that make a whole student.” Wayne Baker, former executive director of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), told Community College Week that more entering students are demanding a traditional college experience. Athletics is an option for fulfilling this need.

College athletics is a catalyst for creating new opportunities to form other student groups — e.g., a pep band, baton twirling line, flag twirling corps, cheerleading team and dance team. Probably more widely known than Kilgore College’s (Texas) athletic teams are the internationally renowned Kilgore College Rangerettes, the world’s first precision dance team and a group that was created to keep fans in their seats at football game halftimes — with a secondary benefit of equalizing the male-female student ratio. Community college students often feel disconnected to their educational institution due to the demands of working part or full time, balancing familial commitments and trying to overcome past negative educational experiences. Athletics is an outlet that builds community and gives an identity to the students who become involved in college activities. Athletics also promotes fundraising whether through alumni or community donations, corporate sponsorships or through sales of college merchandise.

Navarro College (Texas) enjoys a proud tradition as a leader in community college sports. Six Division I intercollegiate sports are offered at this college — football, men’s basketball, baseball, women’s softball, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball. In addition, it has won several conference and regional championships.

Intercollegiate athletic programs at community colleges connect students to the institution. Consider the student-athletes who are recruited by a Division I four-year college or university but unable to meet admission requirements. Enrolling in a community college and prevailing over the accompanying negative feelings, they find their place within the college, showered with support from contemporaries, coaches, instructors and community supporters. More confident in the classroom and in their sport, they successfully transition to the four-year institution with a greater understanding of community involvement. Community college athletics provide pathways to success.

Although you may not have the next Nolan Ryan, the famed Major League Baseball pitcher who is now president of the Texas Rangers and a graduate of Alvin Community College (Texas); Ben Wallace, the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star who graduated from Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio); or any others on the long list of famous community college alumni, advocating for an athletics program at your community college may foster increased enrollment and retention rates. It may also create new opportunities for your constituents, heighten community involvement and build a sense of pride and commitment in supporting the college in its quest for excellence.

— Dr. Coral Noonan-Terry is associate director of the National Institute for Staff & Organizational Development at The University of Texas at Austin; and Dr. Richard M. Sanchez is the district president of Navarro College (Texas). The forum is sponsored in partnership with NISOD.

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