Some small private institutions are bristling at a set of National Collegiate Athletic Association rule changes that will require them to spend money on very specific upgrades to their sporting facilities.
Citing the economic downturn, the Presidents Council of the Centennial Conference, a group of Division III institutions mainly located in the Lancaster Valley of Pennsylvania, has asked the NCAA to reconsider a handful of association-wide changes the Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved last year. The panel, which includes representatives from all three divisions, mandated that all football-sponsoring institutions provide referees with wireless microphones to announce penalties. It also ordered that all basketball-playing NCAA members have shot clocks that display tenths of seconds and are mounted on each backboard. All backboards must also have lights that illuminate when the shot clock has expired.
Though the changes do not become mandatory until fall 2010, and institutions will have had more than two years to make the necessary upgrades, the Centennial presidents argue that, given the recession, it is not prudent for them to spend money on these changes to their sporting facilities when they have other grave financial concerns in their academic departments.
Steven F. Ulrich, executive director of the Centennial Conference, said his member institutions are not objecting to the rule changes. Instead, he is lobbying the NCAA to delay the deadline for complying for at least a year, given the state of the economy. The changes, he argued, will affect Division III institutions the most, as they are often smaller and do not have the financial resources Division I and II institutions have to make facilities upgrades.
While Ulrich is all for compliance, he acknowledged that some of the presidents in his conference are puzzled by the changes coming from on high, especially given the small size of their athletics programs.
“The highest attendance in Division III football comes in the Midwest,” Ulrich explained. “In the Mid-Atlantic, we’re not drawing more than 3,000 people for a football game. When I noted to our presidents that they were going to have to spend $5,000 on wireless microphones for referees to announce a holding call, they all said, ‘Can’t they move closer to the stands?’ In some respects, I understand what they’re saying. Sometimes we’re told, ‘It’s good for Division I, so it must be good for Division III.’ Well, that’s not always the case.”
The opinions expressed by the Centennial presidents are part of a larger tension that still exists within Division III. Last year, the non-scholarship division nearly split apart  to create a Division IV, due to differences of opinion as to its future. Among the more serious items of concern for those in favor of the split included the ever-increasing operating costs of their athletics programs.
If institutions do not comply with the new facilities requirements in the time given, they will be ineligible to host NCAA championship events “because their facility would not be considered in full compliance with NCAA playing rules.”
Ty Halpin, NCAA liaison for the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, said it will be up to a financially strapped institution to decide whether this penalty is severe enough to compel it to make the requested changes, noting that some might not consider this burdensome.
“While the panel understands the economic issues that many institutions and conferences are dealing with, the group believes the rules committees have given a proper amount of time and notification for the alternations that may cause some financial impact,” Halpin wrote in response to the Centennial Conference’s request, noting that a survey of Division III programs showed that a large number were already in compliance.
In an interview, Halpin defended the rule changes, noting that they would lead to a more equitable experience for athletes at all levels of college play. He also argued that they might lead to better officiating in the lower-profile divisions.
“When football players are penalized by their number or even penalties are announced over a loudspeaker by the referee, that’s part of the experience student-athletes want to have,” Halpin said. “Also, in relation to the basketball changes, having a light come on when the shot clock has expired might help [officials in Division II and III] make proper calls. As most of their games are not televised, they often don’t have the benefit of a courtside monitor to review plays.”
One of Centennial’s presidents, however, believes the “student-athlete experience” is fine just the way it is today. In fact, if he had it his way, he might even get rid of some of the more recent changes.
“I think this raises an issue that we have to figure out as Division III programs,” said John Strassburger, president of Ursinus College and chair of the Centennial Conference Presidents Council. “Athletics, at our institutions, are vying with a whole array of costs. Division I and II institutions often have large fund raising apparatuses. We don’t. The NCAA is not taking into consideration the welter of institutional needs aside from athletics. What I want to see is a moratorium on any additional costs to be imposed on Division III institutions.”
The last major facilities changes mandated by the NCAA went into effect last year. All NCAA men’s basketball arenas were required to move the three-point line further from the basket. Much like the forthcoming changes for football referees and basketball shot clocks, institutions had to foot the bill.
Centennial is currently lobbying the Division III Management and Presidents Councils to fight for a stay of these facilities mandates. By the guidelines of the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, however, the deadline for compliance can be pushed back only for all member institutions; there cannot be individual exceptions.