Less-Is-More Approach to Sports
In a move last year that went largely unnoticed, the member institutions of Division II of the National Collegiate Athletic Association took a major step to distance themselves from the bloat many critics have come to associate with their counterparts in Division I: the division’s 300 or so institutions voluntarily decided to scale back the playing and practice seasons of most sports, after a study determined that their players were spending “too much time on athletic pursuits.”
Now, with the first fall sports season under the new time limitations completed, some Division II athletes are convinced the changes have already made a noticeable difference in their academic and social lives. And some professors who teach them are optimistic that the shortened athletic seasons could have a significant impact on their long-term classroom performance.
Among the changes that took place this fall in the division, athletes in football, cross country, field hockey, soccer and volleyball all reported to their institutions a week later in the summer than in prior years. The soccer season was cut from 20 games to 18, the volleyball season from 28 to 26, and the basketball season from 27 to 26. The Division II Football Championship was held a week later. Also, there was a seven-day “dead period” in December during which all athletic activity was banned so that athletes, like other students, could focus on finals.
Though Division II officials stressed they do not have data on the immediate impact of these changes, many gathered at this year’s NCAA convention, held earlier this month in San Antonio, spoke positively of the difference they saw them make on their campuses and in the lives of their athletes.
Drew Bogner, chair of the Division II Presidents Council and president of Molloy College, said chatter about the changes was almost nonexistent among this year’s convention delegates — a far cry from last year, when the conventional wisdom behind a number of these season-slimming proposals was seriously challenged during the division’s legislative session.
“Often you don’t hear the good news,” Bogner said of the impact of NCAA rule changes. “Typically, you only hear when people don’t like it. I think people went into this with fairly good support. Unless we hear otherwise, I think that’s still the case. The main reason we did this was we wanted our [athletes] to be able to experience all aspects of student life.”
And though Bogner said he hopes the Life in the Balance initiatives, as the changes have come to be known, will eventually boost athlete retention and graduation rates, he noted that the significant impacts of the changes, such as reductions in stress levels, may be too individual and personal for the athletes to be measured.
Rose Broderick, softball player and recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University and chair of the Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, agreed with Bogner.
“Maybe grades or graduation rates will not improve that much because of this, but some students here at the convention are already saying they feel less stress,” said Broderick, noting that she thought athletes' support of all of these changes helped guarantee their passage last year. “Many of the students I’ve talked to said having the seasons start later really helped them prepare at the beginning of school. I think they feel more like a student and an athlete, instead of an athlete transitioning into a student-athlete. Still, balance isn’t just about academics. It’s about our community service and social lives as students too.”
Some professors at Division II institutions have similar good feelings about the changes, pointing to anecdotal encounters with athletes in and out of the classroom this past fall as evidence.
Keith Vitense, physical science professor at Cameron University and Division II vice president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, noted that the men’s cross-country team and women’s volleyball teams at his institution reduced their number of contests this past fall. And though he was cautiously optimistic about the academic impact of the change, he said the trims did not take away from the athletic intensity of either team.
“You can’t really extrapolate anything from one semester, but the preliminary results are encouraging,” said Vitense of the apparently improved grade point averages of the athletes on those teams. “I think the feeling is that it gave them more time academically in the classroom. Still, the big fear was that this was going to ruin the sport. From where I sit, it has not had an impact on the sport. There was this fear of the unknown, but I think people are finding this hasn’t taken away from anything on the court.”
John Mayer, professor and chair of the theater department at the California State University at Stanislaus and a member of the FARA executive committee, said the teams at his institution already did not play the maximum number of NCAA allowable contests prior to last year’s rule change, per the decision of its conference, the California Collegiate Athletic Association. And so, athletic seasons remained unchanged at CSU Stanislaus this past fall. Still, he did note that his institution shut down all of its athletics facilities in December for the mandated “dead period.”
“If anything, it helped reemphasize a point that was already made on our campus: that you are a student first and athlete second,” Mayer said of the temporary practice ban. “During the holidays, that’s vital time for students. It’s vital time to reconnect with home, and athletics was taking time away from that. This has forced our athletes to be just like regular college students during that break.”
With all of the positive energy surrounding the changes in Division II, some professors and athletics watchdogs are calling on its larger, higher-profile sibling, Division I, to take notice.
Allen Sack, professor and director of the Sports Management Institute at the University of New Haven who has written critically about the bloat of college athletics, said he has seen firsthand how the truncating of seasons improves athletes’ classroom performance.
“Last fall, I had some football players in my class for an 8 o’clock class in the morning,” Sack said. “Sometime after Thanksgiving when their season wrapped up, some of the athletes who were literally falling asleep in my class during the regular season came wide awake with a ton of energy. I told them, ‘I’m sorry that you guys didn’t get into the playoffs. I know how hard you worked. But, I’m glad to have you in my class and participating.’ ”
Though football was not one of the sports whose regular seasons were trimmed by the Division II rule changes, Sack argued that the improved participation he saw in the football players in his class this past fall indicated how athletes in other sports can benefit from truncated playing and practice time. He applauds the recent reforms being championed by Division II, saying that they are much more than just cosmetic.
“All of these efforts that have been afoot in Division II to ease up on athletes and let them be students, that’s what’s being lost at the Division I level,” Sack said. “I really don’t see any effort being made at that level to make a compromise on this, but I’d like to see it.”
Mayer concurred. “Division I trails behind Division II when it comes to academic endeavors,” he said. “Division II is being proactive to keep the focus where it should be: on academics. I would hope that Division I would follow, but I’m not optimistic about that.”