By De’Sean Markley, Columnist
Furman University is one of the smallest NCAA Division I schools in the entire nation, and is the only liberal arts institution that has been ranked in Sports Illustrated as one of the top one hundred sports colleges. In addition, Furman has produced more professional athletes than any other Southern Conference school — a conference known as a higher tier football conference and a mid-tier basketball conference. Although we struggled on the football field this year, Furman is historically an active contender in SoCon. Since its formation, we have won 13 conference titles, and three of those were won in the past 20 years. The basketball team won the regular season conference title this year.
The men’s and women’s soccer teams are among the best in the nation and the men’s soccer team is ranked as third in SoCon. Furthermore, Furman students often find themselves comparing our teams to the likes of larger schools such as Clemson, Auburn, Duke and University of North Carolina. I was in the stands a year ago when Furman played UCF during their family weekend and defeated them in front of their packed stands. Despite our win, which certainly was amazing, I recognized that Furman was seen as the underdogs. Pulling out a win in that environment and against that team was incredibly unlikely, even to the UCF fans who had never heard of Furman before. Thus, there exists an illusion that Furman is so bad at sports, or, rather, too small of an institution to support a contending NCAA Division I sport that we’re the bottom of the tier. This raises the question of why we should even try. Why does the school pump in enormous sums of money into our sports programs when we make nothing back in return? Why does Furman continue to pay the necessary fees to stay classified as an NCAA Division I sport school, when we could be an NCAA Division III school for cheaper?
Prior to considering the historic success of our institution, I discussed this topic with those whose opinions differed from mine. I originally agreed that Furman was wasting money on football and basketball when we could be pumping money into another, more successful sport that would use it effectively such as rugby, or even into more academic scholarships, since the university must raise the funds to support their students on scholarships and financial aid each year. Yet, in my search for evidence to prove my claims, I discovered that there are Furman students who wanted to go to a NCAA Division I institution, and that was the reason they chose Furman over another liberal arts institution.
I would argue that Furman’s classification as a NCAA Division I institution and its involvement in sports has served as a gateway for many students to reach Furman, whether they are benefitting directly from the athletic scholarships, or whether they heard about Furman through some sporting event. Rugby, although it is technically NCAA Division III, has been granted funds to award students partial scholarships which has provided Furman the ability to draw international students to the school. In addition, a sizeable population of the African-American students here are involved in some athletic activity, and thus being in this division has diversified an otherwise homogenous school. The acquisition of a lacrosse team has drawn several people from northern states, such as Maryland, where lacrosse is a popular sport,allowing for regional diversity.
Aside from the gateway that our classification as a NCAA Division I sport has provided to draw students to the university, there are simply students here who absolutely love attending the sporting events and cheering their peers to victory. There are athletes who play their hardest and practice nonstop to represent their school to the best of their ability. They are constantly challenged by the rigors of the NCAA Division I league, and because of those rigors they grow as athletes and as people. There is a clear sports culture that exists, evident by the existence of our sports section of the newspaper, that proves it would be unfair to deny the students who chose to attend Furman because of their love for liberal arts institutions with successful sporting programs. Thus, whether Furman makes money from their NCAA Division I sports matters very little. Whether football goes under .500 or goes undefeated matters very little, because the students who are involved in those activities, whether they are athletes themselves, filming the practices, scoring the games, writing articles about the sporting events, or even just sitting in the fans section, benefit their involvement. In this act of writing this article, I not only realized how sports have helped diversify Furman — leading me to believe that a greater emphasis on sports may helped to diversify Furman even more (racially, economically, nationally and internationally) — but how important sports are too many of the students here.