The session was billed as a National Collegiate Athletic Association-wide discussion of membership issues.
And it was, to the extent that the man running the meeting, University of Dayton President Daniel J. Curran, gave an overview of what's facing the three divisions: the recently announced membership moratorium in Division I, the continued outmigration of colleges from Division II, and the talk of breaking up Division III.
But when it came time for audience questions, the first two divisions might well have been invisible. College presidents, athletics directors and concerned conference delegates peppered an NCAA membership working group panel with questions about a proposal that would allow current Division III members to opt into a new fourth division.
It's been 35 years since the NCAA has made a major membership move, and several sessions during the association's annual convention in Nashville last weekend dealt with the group's growth since that time. Much of that expansion has come in Division III, the largest competitive level, which has 420 members. Roughly 120 colleges have joined the division since 1990, and the expectation is for dozens more to seek membership by 2020.
Division III members are alike in their policies of not awarding athletic scholarships, but that's often where the similarities end. Members include mid-sized Midwestern branch campuses of public universities, small Northeastern independent colleges, and everything in between.
Several of the division's leaders have noted a growing split among the membership. On one side are colleges that offer many sports and have high student participation rates, and on the other are colleges that sponsor fewer sports and have a small percentage of their students taking part in varsity athletics. Differences in approach and emphasis on athletics are seen as flowing from that fundamental difference.
A Division III working group on membership issues studied 18 legislative proposals from 2004-6 that covered such issues as redshirting, practice time and out-of-season participation. Votes showed a split on many issues, with the "many-sports, high-participation" institutions tending to favor more restrictive rules (limits on year-round participation, for instance), while the "fewer-sports, low-participation institutions" tending to support less restrictive regulations.
Year after year, the working group found, similar issues were arising, and invariably a large percentage of members left business sessions unsatisfied. Also factoring in are concerns about the competitive disadvantage that befalls colleges that follow self-imposed restrictions on, say, practice time.
"You say to yourself, there are some issues here," said John Fry, chair of the Division III Presidents Council and president of Franklin & Marshall College. "There are two different ways of doing things, both of which are valid. Clearly it's the case that Division III isn't broken -- but it doesn't necessarily follow that if it's not broken, don't fix it."
Fry and other leaders make the case that any structural changes need to come soon. Division III is coming off a two-year membership moratorium and is taking only four new members a year for the next several years. Also looming is renegotiation of the NCAA's television broadcast contract, which is set to expire in 2013 and provides all of the revenue that helps the NCAA operate championships and other aspects of administering Division III.
"Division III is not an exclusive club for members only," Fry said. "I'm against all caps and moratoriums. We've done this because of a failure to deal with the problems. If we stay with the status quo, the D-III we love today won't be the D-III we have 10 years from now."
Dan Dutcher, an NCAA official who is vice president for Division III, said he agreed that the division needs a longer-term plan that addressed a growing membership divide. Most of the newer colleges fall into the fewer-sports, low-participation category -- a trend the working groups expects to continue with colleges that hope to join in the next several years.
If a structural change is necessary, what's the best solution: splitting Division III into two subgroups or creating a fourth division? The Division III working group is recommending the latter, saying it would better accommodate colleges' philosophical differences about sports participation.
Conversation about the two proposals -- and others, including keeping the status quo -- began in earnest during the convention. The working group is sending each college a survey next month that asks them about their preferences, and the subgroup option remains on the table. But from conversation in Nashville, it seems the Division IV option is getting the most attention.
Two-thirds of all members would have to support a measure altering the structure of Division III, and the soonest a vote could come is at next January's convention. It would still take two years after that for the change to become official.
Dutcher said colleges wouldn't be required to switch divisions, and that 150 would eventually have to agree to the move for a fourth division to be sustained long term.
“I can’t predict how it’s going to come up, because I don’t think university leadership knows what they want yet,” said Myles Brand, the NCAA's president.
Or, as several college officials noted, they don't know what they're going to get.
"My concern is, if I consider going to Division IV, what's it going to be?" said Tom Calder, athletics director at Johns Hopkins University. "What kind of regulations would members support? There are a lot of unanswered questions."
Leaders of Division III's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee say they have concerns about a potential new division (hear what they are in this audio interview) and are awaiting more information.
Fry and Dutcher said members of the new grouping would help to define the division after they join. And judging from the example of possible tenets put forth by the working group, a Division IV could favor more restrictive legislation, including:
- Requiring the sponsorship of more sports -- possibly setting a minimum of eight men's and eight women's sports (with exceptions made for the smallest colleges.)
- Establishing parameters for when a coach can contact a recruit.
- Further shortening the length of seasons or setting more restrictions on when practices can occur.
- Giving college presidents and chancellors more authority over programs.
Even without detailed knowledge of what a Division IV would look like, plenty of college officials expressed concern with the plan.
"I'm questioning whether a high school athlete would look at this and say, 'This isn't a competitive division,' " said Jim Dafler, athletics director at Westminster College, in Pennsylvania. "Everyone has a great intramural program, but athletes today are specialized."
Added Mike Duffy, athletics director at Adrian College, in Michigan: "The [athletes] don't understand what Division III is, and now you're telling them about a Division IV? That's a tough sell."
Duffy and Jeff Docking, president of Adrian, say they fear that a fizzling conference -- with competing colleges eyeing a move to a different division -- could pose a recruiting problem. Adrian has upwards of 1,200 students and more than two dozen varsity programs. The college is heavily reliant on enrollment, Docking said, and can't afford to lose students who are unsure of their prospects of competing against familiar foes.
Docking said he doesn't understand what's wrong with the status quo. "I'm suggesting that we have a good thing going," he said. "This is the first time I've heard an organization say there's a problem because we're becoming too popular."
Dave Neilson, commissioner of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association, to which Adrian belongs, says the two-year transitional period that would occur if changes take place would be unfair to athletes, who signed on to play in the current Division III.
The diversity of members, he said, creates a system of checks and balances, so that "we operate in an environment of stability because nothing moves too far to one extreme."
Several athletics directors suggested that if colleges are unhappy with regulations being passed on the divisional level, they can join conferences that set more restrictive policies.
Support for the Division IV proposal is coming in large part from colleges that advocate a more seasonal approach to athletics.
Doug Bennett, president of Earlham College and president of the North Coast Athletic Conference, has helped lead the charge. He says the philosophical differences among Division III members "make life increasingly awkward."
Bennett disagrees with the assessment that having two distinct groups within a division is healthy. He said in a co-authored letter to the Annapolis Group, a coalition of mostly selective liberal arts colleges, that "experience tells us that relying on conference standards alone is an imperfect solution; particularly in early season competition outside the conference, coaches and athletes want a level playing field and suffer when an opponent has practiced an extra week."
At Earlham, more than 25 percent of the 1,200-some students participate in varsity sports (there are 16 teams in total.) Other colleges in his conference have similar rates of participation. Well over half of students there study abroad, which increases the need for seasonal sports practice and competition.
"We need those same students to be resident advisers, to be in student productions," Bennett said. "We want to keep athletics vital, but it's not the only thing students do."
Dale Knobel, president of Denison University, said he sees creating a Division IV as the best way to accommodate the amount of growth that's likely. It doesn't make sense to have colleges that have varying athletic philosophies, and that have different needs based on whether they are enrollment driven or endowment driven, competing against each other, he said.
And then there's the issue of the postseason. Critics of the current Division III structure say too few teams now are eligible for the playoffs, simply because brackets often can't keep pace with the growing membership.
On one point, at least, most college officials agree: "The debate is more active than ever," Dutcher said.