Intercollegiate athletics currently sits in a unique stage, one that no one ever saw coming. But what does that mean exactly? Where do sports stand today? How do you defeat the negative stigma about two-year colleges that could be the answer right now for so many?

For the National Junior College Athletic Association, we know that student-athletes need sports more today than ever. Our decision to move a majority of fall competition to the spring allows for individual colleges to be flexible in determining what opportunities work best for them.

But why do student-athletes need sports to be successful? Why do their classmates and supporters need sports?  Student-athletes always push forward, they push to finish, push to succeed, push to help others, and they push because they have been pushed.  Student-athletes use this drive to be great, not good, but great because the next adventure in life is just one to two years away. To a campus, these students are a cohort of individuals that always strive to be engaged. They use the opportunities afforded to them to make the most of the next opportunity that awaits.  Sports are not just an arbitrary noun that exists, but rather they are a mechanism that changes lives over and over again, especially at the two-year college level.

At this level that many refer to as junior college or JUCO, student-athletes sacrifice much to establish a foundation of academic and athletic excellence despite the obstacles behind them and the challenges that lay ahead. The stigma surrounding “JUCO” is poor at best. “JUCO” ultimately stands for resilience, hard work, desire and opportunity without any of the extra lavishes that many associate with intercollegiate athletics.  These students engage their communities with the understanding that giving back is more about paying it forward. They look to the coaches for support. Not just athletic support but moral support, academic support, and life support for the lessons that two-year college athletics teaches. Coaches not only support the student-athletes themselves, but all who are engaged and a part of the community experience. 

Recently, two articles stood out to me that showed how our NJCAA alumni and then society views two-year collegiate athletics. One article was from College Baseball Hub titled “Why JUCO Baseball May Be Right for You.” They surveyed more than 350 current and former “JUCO” players, and the question was asked “Would you recommend JUCO to a high school baseball player?” The overwhelming response was yes as 98.1% strongly agreed. The other article from the San Diego Union Tribune produced a column titled “It’s time for college sports to tell athletes take it or leave it.”  This article shed the light on all the great benefits of being a Division I student-athlete. But at one point in the article it made passing remark of “JUCO,” stating, “… they also understand the capitalistic principles of a free market economy and the effect of winning football games on their bottom line – and don’t want some guy with a backwards cap from the local JC spitting chewing tobacco into a cup while mulling over third-and-long in the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl.” I hate to be the spoiler of bad news, but I coached at Division I and the NJCAA level, and I have never worn my hat backwards but have seen coaches spitting many different things at all levels.  

Does anyone other than the NJCAA community notice that each year the Super Bowl is filled with coaches who got their start at the two-year college level? Does anyone notice that the MLB draft is covered by two-year college draftees? Did anyone notice that the San Francisco 49ers hired the second female on-field NFL coach who is an NJCAA alum? The answer is no, only those of us who live, breathe and work at this level to make sure that student-athletes, coaches, and administrators have the opportunities that they deserve look at that and realize what a difference two-year college athletics makes. Whether it’s sports writers looking for a clever quip, television shows making a joke about community college education or sports fans thinking two-year college athletes have no talent, they should all do their research on the NJCAA and two-year colleges rather than advancing a false and harmful stereotype.

To help fight the stigma, do your research and discover the exciting stories from NJCAA alumni. Find out the history of the great two-year college student-athletes, such as Kirby Puckett, Sheryl Swoopes, Bryce Harper, Jessica McDonald, Larry Johnson, Yolanda Griffith, Bubba Watson, Tamara Moore, Roger Clemens, Crystl Bustos, Shawn Marion, Albert Pujols, Jim Thome, Jimmy Butler, Jackie Robinson, Nick Van Excel, Bob McAdoo, Tyreek Hill and Roger Staubach. That is just to name a few great student-athletes as the list goes on and on. But what about coaches and administrators - the NJCAA motto is “Opportunities Start Here,” so that applies to everyone!

We already noted the last few Super Bowls have been filled with NJCAA alums, but some top tier coaches and administrators such as, John Beilein (Michigan & Cleveland Cavaliers), Chris Beard (Texas Tech), Steve Forbes (Wake Forrest), Mark Emmert (NCAA President), Billy Gillespie (Kentucky), Bruce Arena (USA Soccer), Mick Hailey (USA Volleyball), Felicia Martin (NCAA Vice President), Mary Ellen Leicht (first female national association CEO – NJCAA) and Lea Plarski (USA Basketball) got their start or spent time within the two-year college ranks.

But wait, students who attend two-year colleges cannot cut it academically. Isn’t that part of the stigma of attending a two-year college that society largely depicts? Quite the opposite. Even during a pandemic, the NJCAA saw more than 9,500 student-athletes excel in the classroom this year with a cumulative grade point average of a 3.6 or higher earning them NJCAA All-Academic status. What should actually be discussed is the cost savings that exist for the students at two-year colleges. Yes, Division I and Division II of the NJCAA can offer athletic scholarships, while Division III cannot, but even if you had to pay out of pocket, the savings in the first two years of college alone is undeniably significant. The students can make the choice to live at home or live in on-campus housing, if the two-year college provides that. 

None of us saw this pandemic coming, but it has become more and more clear that the purpose and mission of the NJCAA is stronger today than it ever has been. We look forward to hosting the majority of our championships in the spring while staying committed to our vital role as a leader in the field of intercollegiate athletics.  Our organization is built on the fundamentals of helping young men and women of all diverse backgrounds reach their next goal. The leaders at all levels of the NJCAA specialize in changing lives for the better through sport and education. As an association, we stand committed to being a constant in creating new opportunities for all, while defeating the stigma that two-year colleges are anything less than the best opportunity forward.  

#endtheccstigma #NJCAA #OpportunitesStartHere

For more information on two-year college athletics, visit www.njcaa.org.

Parker is the president and CEO of the National Junior College Athletic Association