I’m going to start this article with a disclaimer. I’m president of the University of Connecticut fencing club, which means I’m very impacted by the issue I’m going to discuss in this article. While this absolutely makes me biased, I do think telling this story is important, and I would welcome commentary and response from anyone who may disagree with me. Also, while fencing is the example I use here because I have extensive experience with it, this applies to all contested college sports.
During the weekend of the 2023 NCAA Division I basketball tournament, when the UConn men’s team won its fifth national championship, I was also competing under the banner of UConn. The UConn fencing club — which is the school’s only organization for competitive fencing due to the fact that the school has no NCAA team — was competing at a national tournament for clubs only, hosted in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
After a day of competition was done, all of us fencers piled into a hotel room to watch March Madness, and during a commercial break, a certain ad made me very angry.
The same commercial is essentially run each year. It’s paid for by the NCAA, and it brags about how good the organization is at supporting its student athletes. Now, in a quick browse of its website, one can find that the NCAA “[awards] nearly $3.5 billion in athletic scholarships every year,” and that’s awesome for the beneficiaries of that money. In fact, with the advent of the name, image and likeness era, where NCAA athletes can now earn money during their college sports careers, there is no doubt that the athletes competing under that umbrella enjoy a good amount of support from their universities in their pursuit of athletic glory.
Unfortunately, not all college athletes compete under the NCAA.
In a survey of college students, a 2019 study found that “in total, 28.1% of respondents reported participating in either club or intramural sports.” While it’s not a majority, that’s more than one in four students. Those people, just as much as the NCAA athletes do, deserve to be supported by their universities in their athletic endeavors.
Anyone that sets foot on the Storrs campus or has set foot on it in the past two weeks can very quickly tell that many in our community, including administration, are very proud of our men’s basketball team’s achievements. With 16 total national championships between our women’s and men’s teams, it’s fair to say that the sport has done a great deal to put UConn on the national map. However, while the men’s team absolutely earned UConn’s most high-profile athletic victory that weekend, I got a front-row seat to another one, as the UConn fencing women’s foil team made the semifinals of the club national championship.
In no way is there an argument that the women’s foil accomplishment deserves the same reaction that the men’s basketball win does, but the dichotomy between the two teams is striking.
While basketball and other sports under the NCAA umbrella are nationally regulated, club sports are not. Practice times, facilities and comprehensive safety requirements are among many perks that NCAA athletes enjoy, before one even considers the scholarship money that is offered. For club sports, none of this is guaranteed. At UConn, for example, unless a club has been granted one of the limited “club sport” slots afforded to certain clubs, opportunities for a team to practice together depend entirely on whether there is availability in a short list of spaces on campus. In Hawley Armory, for example, demand means that most clubs only have the ability to meet once a week for two hours — according to an NCAA study from 2015, Division III athletes average about 28 hours per week on athletics, and that number goes up past 35 for Division I.
Again, the argument isn’t that NCAA and club sports need to be completely equal. In fact, they shouldn’t be. Club sports, in their nature, are supposed to be more casual and participated in with less stress attached. However, the gap should not be this big. One thing that proves this is, appropriately for an article about sports, based on performance. At the 2023 Northeast Intercollegiate Fencing Conference Championships, multiple club teams finished higher than some NCAA squads. That these clubs could outperform teams with far more resources and practice time illustrates that they deserve at least a little more of an even playing field.
There are two pretty simple solutions here that could kick-start some movement toward closing that gap a little bit.
First, there needs to be more regional and national regulation for club sports that intend to compete in intercollegiate events. This would help set the bar for safety protocols, and it would grant more opportunities for athletes not involved in NCAA teams to compete at a higher level.
Second, colleges need to stop pretending that they support all of their student athletes fairly unless they actually plan on doing so. Using UConn as the example, it’s obvious that nothing brings recognition to this school like basketball does, but that doesn’t justify the school to ignore the validity and competitive spirit of all the other amazing athletes enrolled.