Steve Slivka gives his all while hustling down the basketball court at Indiana University (IU). Standing about 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing maybe 160 pounds, Slivka does not look like the typical college basketball player, but he is a college athlete. Slivka is one of more than 20,000 athletes on the IU campus who love sports but do not get scholarships to play. He is an intramural athlete.
“The best thing is to still be able to play organized basketball with officials instead of playing a pick-up game at 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” says Slivka. “With intramurals, it is a real game.”
With more than 2 million high school students transitioning into college each year and less than 360,000 students playing NCAA sports, most of you will find yourselves without a sports uniform in college. However, you can take the same path as Slivka and get involved with intramural or club sports to keep your athletic dreams alive, learn leadership skills and meet new friends. Club sports also offer top competition, the chance to officiate and the possibility of traveling the country for anything from basketball to go-karting.
Why get involved?
Eighty percent of college students utilize their campus recreational sports programs, according to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). At the University of Illinois, 400 to 900 students join club sports each year, says Charles Anderson, assistant director of intramural and club sports.
Students get involved in intramurals for recreational and social aspects, while club sports participants are usually trying to extend their athletic careers past high school but cannot play varsity,
Tashina Clark, a junior at Brigham Young University (BYU), led cheers on the sidelines for her high school football and basketball teams. She enjoyed being active in sports but joined an intramural Wallyball team (like volleyball, but played on a racquetball court) for social rather than athletic benefits.
“It gives you a chance to get out,” she says. “It does not matter how it turns out, and you get to spend time with friends. And I made new friends because there were some people on my team I would not have gotten to know had I not played.“
A star soccer player in high school, Jeff Saunders planned to continue this recognition on the varsity field at the University of Michigan. Because of miscommunication with the team, he ended up joining the club team instead.
“I do not see this as a disappointment,” says Saunders. He says that playing club sports allows him more time to focus on his studies than if he played varsity, and being part of a team helps structure his time and gives him an opportunity to exercise and be competitive.
Despite the opportunity to compete and have fun, recreational sports help students learn skills that will serve them later in life, says Valerie McCutchan, NIRSA assistant director of national sports programs. Student-run teams allow participants to take responsibility and learn to lead others.
Saunders has learned these skills through the position of the Michigan club soccer team‘s president. He is responsible for any team administrative duties, which include scheduling home and away games and travel arrangements, overseeing all financial activities and communicating with those who help fund the team.
Wallyball is just one sport offered in college that is often not organized in high school. Clark enjoys participating in something she had never played before.
“We did not practice,” she says with a little laugh. “We just went out and played. It was awesome. Nothing normal, but it was a lot of fun!”
The recreational sports program at Illinois started more nontraditional sports to offer intramurals to a wider range of students, Anderson says. Other campuses have followed suit and now have sports such as underwater hockey, inner tube water polo, go-karting, dodge ball and ultimate Frisbee.
Because some sports are not normally thought of when it comes to college athletics, teams must work on building membership. The Florida State University skydiving club is in this process, says Jessica Obie, the club‘s president. She hopes to add members so the team can start competing with other universities.
Some nontraditional sports have gained national recognition on both collegiate and professional levels. Tony Bunce, president of Ohio State University’s paintball club, played recreationally in high school; college allowed him to play competitively. He said paintball’s recognition is growing rapidly and also gaining respect in college divisions.
Intramural athletes compete against students on their own campus; many club sports travel to compete with different universities.
The University of Michigan’s men’s soccer club makes as many as two road trips a week. Saunders enjoys the opportunity he has to travel with the team.
“It is a good team bonding experience,” he says. “I have been able to see college campuses that I normally would not have, and it is nice to get away from campus every so often.”
A talented enough team can even travel to national tournaments endorsed by the NIRSA, which sponsors soccer, volleyball and tennis tournaments.
Although recreational athletes do not get the same recognition as their NCAA counterparts, it does not mean they take their sports any less seriously. The IU intramural basketball uniforms may be informal (player numbers are scribbled in permanent marker on the backs of shirts), but the competition is not.
“At one end is just a recreational fun level,” Anderson says. “At the other extreme, competition levels can rival those of Division III sports.”
Don’t want to play? Officiate!
Students who do not play but want to experience the competition can officiate. Unlike the athletes, student officials get paid. To be an official, students participate in two- or three-day training sessions, says Anderson. Officials get paid $6 an hour for the sports they referee, he says.
Tasha Daily, a student at Purdue University, likes to work out and stay in shape, so for her, officiating basketball was a good job.
“The games get really competitive and players yell, even at a girl,” Daily says. “I am a small girl, and I still get ripped into if I do not make a call. I have never seen something as fierce as sorority girls playing basketball.”
Intramural officiating benefits students as long as they can handle their peers yelling at them, Anderson says. He says officiating teaches students leadership skills and how to deal with conflict
“I was so nervous I would make all the wrong calls and get yelled at or make a fool of myself,” Daily says. “But you get in there, and it is great. Then you realize you are the one with all the power. They cannot touch you.”
Although recreational sports athletes may never get acknowledged on ESPN, they do get to keep organized sports in their lives. And as college looms in the back of your mind, you, too, may discover recreational sports as a way to show your athleticism, regardless of your talent.