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The Death of the Three-Sport Athlete, Part II

Why don’t we see any more three-sport athletes in college sports? I think it’s because we rarely see any STUDENT-athletes at the highest level of college sports.

Heck, we rarely see any more TWO-sport athletes. Gone are the likes of Bo Jackson and Dion Sanders in Division I. Gone, too, are athletes like me (football, lacrosse), my sister Tracey (field hockey, track) and countless other athletes at the Division II and III level. It seemed like all of the athletes I played with in College at Williams played more than one sport and played them all well. Most of them doing so much better than I to be sure. Most sightings of  multi-sport athletes in Division I have traditionally occurred in the Ivy League but no more. The three-sport athlete is dead and gone, and the two-sport athlete is following quickly.

Why is this so? Is this just the logical extension of the death of the three-sport high school athlete? Are ambitious, selfish, narrow-perspective coaches the cause of the demise of the collegiate multi-sport athlete? Or is it the parents, blinded by the false promise of scholarships who allow themselves to be swept up in the fallacy of early specialization, who are to blame?

The answer is “yes” at the lower levels of collegiate sports, Division III in particular. Parents especially shoulder the blame here, pushing their children to specialize early, to forgo  multiple sports played just for the fun of it in the hopes that a single sport will be the wildcard that gets their child into that super-selective college. Without any evidence that playing multiple sports will reduce the chances that a child will play a sport in college, parents allow themselves to be seduced by coaches who have only their own interest at heart.

What of Division I you might ask? What about a situation where a scholarship is possible? A situation where an athlete may get a free ride in return for playing a sport in college? Well, here we introduce the holy grail, an athletic scholarship in return for helping a Division I college make money. Here, at the highest level of sport is where money ultimately has soiled the playing field. For every sin that a high school coach has committed in the pursuit of a victory there is a college coach and a college athletic director and a college president who has committed the same sin. The college coach, AD, and president have the added PROFIT incentive to monopolize the college athlete,  and their sins are correspondingly magnified.

Need an example? How about looking at Florida State, home of the Seminoles and alma mater of the outstanding college football and baseball player Dion Sanders. Here, right now, we have a college president openly lobbying for a ruling that will not result in the forfeit of 14 football games as a result of an academic indiscretion on the part of a significant number of football players. We have a college president and an AD more concerned with the legacy of a millionaire coach and the affect on the reputation (and fund raising) of a football program than with the reputation of the academic institution.

The three-sport college athlete died shortly after the STUDENT-athlete died.

Need another example? Two weeks ago the WSJ published an article on sports in the Ivy League, “Can the Ivy League Get Its Game Back?” The basic theme was that there was something wrong with Ivy League sports and that the solution was that they should become more like major Division I programs and that they should compete in ALL post-season competitions. Tommy Amaker and Harvard are  held up as examples of what should be done, that lowering academic standards is priority one. Next is the institution of league tournaments to generate interest and money. Finally, it is proposed that Ivy League schools should offer non-need based athletic scholarships.

Rather depressing at first blush, but this may actually be where salvation may lie. This may be where the student-athlete is reborn and along with him or her the three-sport athlete. What if the Ivy League DID compete at the highest level and won WITHOUT changing their academic standards like they did pre-1960? What if the best high school student-athletes chose to attend Harvard or Princeton instead of Ohio State and Michigan? If the majority of college athletes do NOT go on to make a living playing their sport wouldn’t it make sense for them to attend the most selective college possible, just like every other kid?  What if the Ivy League applied the same criteria to admitting athletes as they do for the rest of the student body and looked for the well-rounded athlete? The three-sport athlete? What if Dartmouth and Columbia started to win?

I think the schools of the Ivy League should stand up and lead. By offering athletic scholarships to EVERY athlete who makes a varsity team they will remove the economic disadvantage they presently have when competing for the top STUDENT-athletes. Unlike other institutions of higher learning the Ivy League schools are more than able to handle the dollar costs involved. In doing so they will undoubtedly find that they can fill each of their teams many times over with student-athletes who would start at most Division I colleges without changing the admission criteria for athletes one iota.

In fact, the truer they are to the entirety of their stated admission criteria, to produce a college class of diverse, well-rounded individuals, the more likely they are to seek the well-rounded athlete. If the Ivy League were to return to its athletic roots while maintaining its academic ideals and identity the best and the brightest high school athletes will beat a path to the door of its member schools. The Ivy League will have “Its Game Back” and we will once again see Yale in a Bowl Game, Harvard in the Frozen Four, Princeton in the Final Four, and Penn in the College World Series. We will see them win. If they will lead they will win.

And perhaps, just maybe, a coach or a parent will say to a boy or girl who is doing homework after the last game of his or her Fall sport, “Hey, when is the first basketball practice?”

3 Responses to “The Death of the Three-Sport Athlete, Part II”

  1. June 7th, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Kevin Nye says:

    Thanks for posting this on my facebook wall, doc, I really enjoy this little series of articles you are putting together. However, I will reply in a handful of small comments, because it is finals week, and contrary to popular belief, I am studying. Right now, I am going to defend the kids who only play one sport, under the belief thats sports have become too specialized. Sports like Soccer, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey, and Lacrosse all require their players to fulfill specific roles on their teams, and in order for lots of kids, including myself, needed to tailor their athleticism (or lack there of in my case), to meet the need of a team. Lets take two kids who play lacrosse and soccer in their first year of high school, both are contributors to both varsity teams early on in their careers. However, one of them quits lacrosse to focus on soccer, and although he is younger becomes a much larger contributor on the soccer team than his counterpart. The other, still contributes, but his ability to handle the soccer ball as well lacks because he spends his springs playing lacrosse, and his stick skills lack in lacrosse because he spends his summer and fall playing soccer. In the modern sports world, unless you are an overall great athlete, like Bo Jackson or Dion Sanders, or you play at an incredibly small rural school, it is impossible to reach superstar status at different sports. This is because of the example stated earlier, if you play multiple sports, while you are playing one sport, your teammates and competitors ability sky rockets playing another sport you participate in. This world places such a high value on sports, that the competitiveness and pressure to be good does not allow kids to play numerous sports. To close my first of many comments, I am going to point out that the three sport athlete is definitely dying fast, at my alma mater, the last two, four year, three sport athletes were seniors when I was a freshman, and one is playing football at Cleveland Division III school Baldwin Wallace, and the other is playing Hockey at Mercyhurst. I’ll write more shortly…

  2. June 7th, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Buck Buckner says:


    Check out this video. Bryan Peters was not only the Colorado HS 5A player of the year in football but was just selected as the Colorado HS 5A baseball player of the year. Unfortunately he is limiting himself to baseball at Nebraska and will forego football and basketball.


  3. February 12th, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Preschool NJ says:

    You win the prize for the best post I have ever read! Really!

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