Reforming Reform

Some Division III colleges seek to turn back the clock on 2004 rules changes that imposed limits on their sports programs.
January 4, 2006

When members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association gather for their annual convention early next week in Indianapolis, one highlight of the meeting will be the next round in the fight for the future of Division III.

The last landmark in the battle came at the 2004 convention. Of the 419 Division III institutions, normally only about 50 college presidents show up to vote at the annual NCAA convention. In January 2004, more than 100 attended the NCAA’s meeting for what they considered a crucial referendum on the future of the association’s lowest competitive level. For two years, the members of Division III had debated whether to further distance the division from the high-stakes pre-professional ranks of Division I.

A group of presidents who wanted to make clear the traditional philosophy of Division III, which they believed some institutions in the division were moving away from, pushed major reforms through at the 2004 convention. Two of the most controversial involved getting rid of the “redshirt” year, which allowed students to practice with a team for one year without losing one of the four years of competitive eligibility; and shortening the “non-traditional season,” or the playing and practice time outside of the standard competition season (for example, baseball in the fall, or soccer in the spring).

The 2004-5 academic year was the first chance coaches and athletics directors had to try out the changes, and some of them did not like what they found. Division III coaches say that the redshirt rule had almost never been abused, and that the cuts to the nontraditional season curtails open tryouts and keeps some teams off the field when the weather is perfect for playing. A small group of institutions has introduced proposals, to be considered at this year’s meeting, that would reinstate the redshirt year and expand the nontraditional season, though not all the way to its pre-2004 length.

The 15 Division III chief executives who make up the Presidents Council are alarmed by the proposals. In October, the council unanimously recommended that the division’s voters reject the measures.

But John Fry, president of Franklin and Marshall College and a member of the Presidents Council, says there is a “real nervousness that despite our recommendations, what happens on the floor [at the January convention] could be entirely different.” It is unlikely that 100 presidents will show up at the convention again. Instead, some of those institutions will be represented by their athletics directors -- with or without marching orders from their presidents -- some of whom believe the 2004 changes were a mistake and hope widespread opposition will result in a rollback.

As the visibility of college athletics has increased in the last two decades, via television and the Web, and the emphasis on national championships has taken center stage, the tug-of-war over the future of Division III -- the no-scholarship bastion of true "student athletes" -- has intensified. According to Robert Malekoff, who is on the coordinating board of the College Sports Project, a group of 130 institutions that say they seek to keep athletic goals in line with educational goals, said that reforms and counter-reforms have become common among Division III’s diverse and often starkly divided membership.

Malekoff noted that the 2004 votes were far from consensus decisions. The changes to the nontraditional season passed by a vote of 214-191, with one abstention, and the redshirt was eliminated by a vote of 249-163, also with one abstention.

This year, both sides are sharpening their arguments for the possible fight on the legislative floor.

The redshirt year is widely used and accepted among the high-profile sports programs in the Division I, where it tends to identify an athlete who comes to college intent on practicing for five years, rather than graduating in four. In that first year where athletes practice but don’t compete, redshirt basketball players learn offensive schemes, and football and baseball players hit the weight room hard to put on pounds.

Many Division III presidents believe such an approach in unnecessary in Division III, where in their view athletics is supposed to be a secondary concern. “Convince me of the need for these things,” Fry says, rhetorically asking those who want to bring the redshirt back.

Some DIII coaches, and at least a few presidents, would like to answer him. While the redshirt year is hardly ever employed in Division III, it can be a life preserver to help a student maintain a connection and sense of community during the adjustment to college.

Don Tencher, the athletic director at Rhode Island College and secretary and treasurer for the Little East Conference, drafted the proposal to bring the redshirt back, on behalf of his institution, the Massachusetts State Athletic Conference, Keene State College, Plymouth State University, and the University of Southern Maine, all of which have presidential support for the proposal.

Tencher recalls three redshirts in his 10 years at Rhode Island. Of the 419 colleges in Division III, only about 100 are public, and Tencher says that, in making the reforms, members may have lost sight of the utility of the redshirt for public colleges in Division III. “We have students with jobs, first-generation students. They’re not graduating in four years,” Tencher says. “We use the redshirt for kids that are struggling academically to say, ‘Take the year off, but stay connected with the team.’ We don’t have 52 academic support people and 7 strength coaches. If they lose their connection with the team, they leave.”

John Nazarian has been at Rhode Island for 55 years, as a student, teacher, administrator, and now president. He agrees with Tencher. Nazarian says that 35 percent of Rhode Island students take at least the 12 credits per semester needed to be a full-time student, but fewer than the 15 it takes to graduate in four years. “We’re a commuter college,” Nazarian said. “When we survey freshmen, people come for different reasons; for the quality of a certain program, affordability, and some want to play sports.”

Nazarian, like others who saw the 2004 reforms as symbolic rather than functional moves, detects a healthy dose of anti-athlete sentiment in the rule changes. Nazarian said that, in the early 1990s, Rhode Island was discussing program cuts. He said the faculty’s idea was simply to cut all sports.  “I told them to guess how much they thought that would save,” Nazarian said. “They guessed over $1 million. It was less than $200,000.”

John Ratliff, athletics director at Keene State in New Hampshire, says that redshirts in Division III “aren’t like [the Division I quarterback] Matt Leinart,” referring to the famous University of Southern California star who is taking only a two-credit ballroom dancing class this semester, just to hang around and go for another national championship. Ratliff said he understands the desire to limit redshirts at colleges like Williams and Middlebury, “where kids are getting out in four years,” he says. “The publics aren’t that way.”

Dan Dutcher, NCAA Division III vice president, recognizes that typical students take more than four years to graduate, but he says it comes down to the appropriate athletic experience for athletes at the DIII level. “Athletics should not be used to artificially extend the academic experience,” he says.

Most of the people involved with the effort to reinstate the redshirt year give the proposal a slim chance, at best. But the proposal to increase the nontraditional season has a fighting chance. In 2004, the decision to shorten the nontraditional season passed by a margin of 22 votes, the closest of any DIII legislation at the convention.

Before the change, teams had five weeks in the off season to practice up to six times a week, and up to five dates of competition. The reform cut that segment to four weeks, with a maximum of four practices per week, and one day of competition. The new proposal calls for 20 days of practice and three competition dates for baseball, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball and women’s volleyball. The 2004 cut has raised the greatest ire among coaches at New England colleges, some of whom say that the nontraditional season is more important than the beginning of the actual season.

Ken Howe, the baseball coach at Keene State, says he has to stare at an empty green baseball field for much of September and October, and then is allowed to begin in-season practices in January, when the field is covered with snow. Howe said the real losers are potential walk-ons, unrecruited athletes who make a team through open tryouts. Walk-ons rarely make a team in Division I, but Division III has traditionally been an oasis for unrecruited athletes. “I used to teach and evaluate in the nontraditional season,” Howe says. “Now I’m cutting kids after eight days.”

But Dutcher says that the currently permitted 16 days of practice in the nontraditional season is a substantial resource, and that the segment was reduced, rather than eliminated completely, precisely because of the need for off-season teaching and tryouts. “Many institutions in the division don’t use a nontraditional season at all,” he says.

Howe says he has found it hard to take advantage of the single competition date, because everybody wants to use their one day at home, so they don’t have to limit the players they bring by traveling. According to other sources, some coaches have exploited the one date of competition by playing from dawn to dusk.

Some coaches say that the chopping of the nontraditional season may have exacerbated a problem that reared its head even before the reforms. Players have always been allowed to have “captain’s practices,” session organized by an athlete independent of any coach, sometimes as informal as a pickup game. Occasionally, though, institutions have run into trouble when coaches try to have a hand in scheduling or attending captain’s practices. In September, Ohio Northern University was banned from postseason play because coaches attended supposed captain’s practices. None of the coaches interviewed say they could cite specific instances, but some did feel that captain’s practices are exploited more now than they were before the 2004 changes.

Tencher said he thinks the number of DIII colleges that abuse the rules is very small, and that the NCAA should punish abuses, but not by eliminating a “retention tool,” he says.

The current debate over these specific proposals is laying bare a larger disagreement in Division III over the extent to which college presidents should be making decisions in sports. Richard Pattenaude, president of the University of Southern Maine, agrees with Fry that presidential involvement is key to the integrity of an athletics program, but he’d rather keep the involvement at the institutional level.

Pattenaude has been very involved with the hiring and renewal, or non-renewal, of coaches over the years. He says that some coaches have not been kept around when “we didn’t think the fit was good for the values that pervade our athletic program.” Like Pattenaude, some presidents who are unhappy with the 2004 reforms have given their athletics directors the green light to vote for measures at the convention that mitigate the reforms.

At the Division III convention meeting, every institution that is represented has one vote. According to Dutcher, about 50 college presidents show up on a normal year. How many presidents are sending representatives with voting instructions is anybody’s guess. “Those [presidents] who can’t attend the convention should just hand it over to the AD and trust their judgement,” Fry says. He adds that some presidents who saw 2004 as pivotal figured the job was done.

“2004 was a step forward,” Fry says. “If we don’t see that same level of presidential involvement, those gains will be lost.”



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