After months of discussion and debate, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has for now killed the idea of adding a fourth competitive division to accommodate the increasingly divergent views among officials of the 442 colleges that belong to its nonscholarship Division III.
But that decision, which was prompted by the results of a survey of those colleges that showed overwhelming opposition to breaking up the members of Division III, is unlikely to end the conversation, for one simple reason: That same survey showed wide disagreements among Division III members about many issues, including some core principles that the colleges supposedly share. For instance, only about half of the colleges in Division III think they should be required to sponsor teams in at least 12 sports, as will be the case as of 2012; about a quarter believe the level should be at least 14, and the rest believe it should be 10 or below.
And perhaps more fundamentally, more than half of respondents said they believed that colleges should be able to consider a student's athletics "leadership" in allocating financial aid, to the same extent they consider students' leadership abilities in other activities. That view, followed to its logical extreme, could be read to represent a disagreement about one of the foundational principles of Division III: that athletics should not be factored into decisions about financial aid.
"The membership seems to be saying pretty clearly that structural change is not the way to go," said Dan Dutcher, the NCAA's vice president for Division III. "But it's also clear that some pretty significant issues remain that have to be dealt with in some way."
Division III is the association's largest competitive level; about 120 colleges have joined its ranks since 1990, and dozens more are expected 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. They have been increasingly divided between colleges that offer many sports and have high student participation rates, and institutions 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, with some favoring longer playing seasons and the "redshirting," or holding athletes out of competition for a season to extend their eligibility.
Those divisions, and concerns about the rapid expansion of the division and of the association's membership as a whole, prompted the NCAA to create two "working groups" to explore issues related to membership -- one for Division III, and a parallel associationwide one as part of the NCAA's executive committee.
Last fall, the Division III Working Group on Membership Issues proposed creating a new division or subdividing Division III, in ways that would have allowed more like-minded colleges to compete against one another (and not against those with increasingly varying philosophies). But in the wake of a discussion at January's NCAA convention where opinion seemed to run against the idea of such a split, the panel also decided to survey Division III members on their views on that and other issues.
The results of that survey of presidents, sports administrators and others were publicly released Wednesday (an executive summary can be found here, and the full results here. But even before then, based on the survey's preliminary results, the Division III working group decided to end its discussion of a possible split of Division III or creation of a new Division IV, The NCAA News, the association's in-house publication, reported last month.
A full 82 percent of the Division III members who responded (which was virtually all of them) said they either support or strongly support the current unified Division III structure, and that they favored keeping it because they believed breaking it up would hard colleges and conferences and because proponents of the change had not made a compelling case for it.
“Our members are saying that despite their differences, they like being a part of Division III,” said Rudy Keeling, commissioner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference and chair of the Division III membership panel.
Mike Duffy, athletics director at Adrian College, who favors the current structure and opposed the idea of subdividing Division III, said that its members should be able to work out their differences through further discussion and through the NCAA's standard way of resolving differences: passing rules through its democratic voting process. "There are differences of opinions in every group. So you should live in Alaska and I should live in Florida because of that? No.... This can all be worked out, even if we have to take it little piece by little piece."
John Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall College and a leading advocate for the Division IV concept, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the outcome. "The point I was trying to drive forward was that just because we love the way Division III is now, that doesn't mean it's going to stay that way in the future" as the division's membership grows," he said. "People told me that we were describing a burning platform, but said that 'we just don't see the platform burning right now. It just did not resonate, though I remain convinced that in the longterm, some sort of structural solution is the right way to go."
Even as the survey showed Division III members relatively united on sticking together, its results reinforced the philosophical and other divisions that separate them. A full quarter of the college officials surveyed said they believed the recent NCAA legislation prohibiting the redshirting of athletes should be overturned, and only half favored the path the division was on in terms of sports sponsorship requirements.
One other result jumped out at a number of observers: More than half of respondents said they supported or strongly supported the idea that "[c]onsideration of leadership in athletics (e.g. team captain) in the awarding of financial aid to students should be allowed provided it is consistent with the consideration of leadership in other student activities." Although Dutcher of the NCAA said he believed the way the question was framed may have contributed to that result, he and others acknowledged that taken at face value, that answer suggests questioning by a sizable number of Division III officials of a core principle: "that we do not award athletically oriented financial aid," said Fry. "That piece of data really rocked me," he added.
Dutcher, Fry and others said that the association's plan is to hold a series of "town hall" discussions this spring and summer on the future of Division III, to have what Fry, who heads the Division III Presidents Council, called "some good fundamental conversations about core principles."
"We have some differences in philosophy," he said. "That doesn't mean one group is right and the other is wrong, but that the tent we pitched originally now seems to be being stretched in different ways. That survey reinforced the very reason we were having this conversation in the first place. We may have decided, from a structural standpoint, not to change Division III, but we really haven't solved any of the problems."