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ISSUE 117 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/7/2003

D-III or not D-III? That is the question? : New proposal seeks to remove Division I programs from Di

By Ken Foote
Executive Editor

Friday, November 7, 2003

Throughout the year on the Hill, hundreds of athletes participate in one or more of St. Olaf’s 16 varsity sports. These athletes hit the weight room, tear up the practice fields and give their all on game day. Why? Because they love the game and because four years of high school athletics were just not enough.

Playing an Ole sport usually means there is little fanfare and an even smaller chance of playing that sport at a professional level. No one is going to confuse Ole athletes with athletes from, say, the University of Minnesota.

Ignoring the obvious physical differences -- not to imply that Ole athletes are not gifted physically -- there is one huge difference that makes any comparison between Division III St. Olaf and Division I behemoth U of M all but impossible: scholarships.

Division I scholarship athletes and their families do not pay tuition, room, board, books or traveling expenses. Division III athletes fork over the usually large tuition payment and find time to practice around challenging classes and daunting homework assignments. Division I athletes have aspirations of going pro and making national highlights. Division III athletes aspire to play the game they love for as long as they can, at the highest level they can, while preparing for a future in another field.

Division III status extends beyond the athletic field and into the classroom. Division III’s strict eligibility and no-scholarship stance assures that student-athletes are students first, athletes second.

Despite the differences in the worlds of Division I and Division III, eight institutions, including Colorado College and Johns Hopkins University, have managed to offer a full range of Division III athletics, and a few select programs that compete on the Division I level.

When NCAA Division III decided to ban scholarships in 1983, these eight colleges and universities were grandfathered in and allowed to continue giving scholarships to athletes participating in their Division I sports.

Recent debate has raged as to whether the highly competitive, nationally recognized world of Division I athletics can exist peacefully with the unadulterated world of Division III sports.

The Oct. 30 answer from the NCAA's Division III Presidents Council is a resounding "no."

The day before Halloween, the Council voted 9-3 to go forward with a proposition that would require these eight institutions to phase out scholarships after the 2008 season if they want to maintain their Division III affiliation. The options are to move the entire athletic department up to Division II or Division I and continue giving scholarships or keep the select programs competing at a Division I level but forfeit the right to give scholarships.

The proposal will also limit Division III athletes to a four-year window of participation. They will not be able to red shirt, which allows an athlete to sit out a season and not lose a year of eligibility.

This proposal will not affect St. Olaf, as the college is well-trenched in its Division III affiliation. However, St. Olaf could play a role in whether or not the proposition gets put into effect.

As expected, the affected institutions, dubbed “the Eight,” are planning to lobby against the proposition. The bulk of their efforts will focus on convincing other Division III schools that viable, multi-divisional membership – with full scholarships for the exempt Division I sports – is worth saving. The Eight are expected to make regular conference calls and distribute brochures to most of the 416 Division III colleges and universities.

The issue will next be addressed at the four-day NCAA Convention starting Jan. 9.

Still, the burning question remains, how will this affect the Eight?

Johns Hopkins boasts one of the nation’s premier lacrosse programs and would be affected by the proposal. Athletic director Tom Calder described his disappointment in a press release that said, in part, the school’s competitiveness in lacrosse is "part of our history and culture."

Is it right to rob a university of its culture? Is the NCAA like a powerful nation seeking to colonize others, making them adapt to a new way of life?

This may seem like a stretch, but, undoubtedly, the Eight will be greatly affected by the proposal.

The athletes will not be the only ones affected. Students who enjoy going to the games will be deprived of that entertainment and the sense of pride that goes with having a prominent team.

This, however, ignores the most threatening change: the financial impact. In the world of big time sports, national prominence is equated with big money. The Eight have a seemingly perfect situation. They have programs that generate revenue, making it possible to keep tuition low and hire prestigious faculty and coaches. If they were forced to move all of their programs up to Division I, they would have to spend more money since Division III sports cost much less to run than Division I sports.

If the programs should fail in the wake of the proposal, the entire administration and student body would suffer at the respective institutions.

However, does an academic institution have the right to break up their sports for financial benefit? Is this a clever loophole that allows the institution to reap maximum rewards with minimal investments?

If this were the case, all institutions could dump their non-money making programs to Division III and keep the profitable programs in Division I competition. This would damage the overall competitiveness of the national collegiate sports scene.

Colorado College is strikingly similar to St. Olaf in academic reputation and enrollment. Both are nationally recognized liberal arts colleges and have enrollments under 3,000. However, Colorado College has two successful Division I programs, men’s hockey and women’s soccer, to accompany its full slate of Division III athletics.

Their men’s hockey team has earned six NCAA playoffs berths since 1994 and the women’s soccer team has finished second in the nation twice in its 30-year history. In addition, Colorado College hosted the first national women’s soccer tournament and is noted for helping push women’s soccer to the forefront of the national collegiate sports pantheon.

Will these programs be able to survive without scholarships? It is unlikely that the college could recruit blue-chip, Division I-caliber players, without the alure of full scholarships. Also, the athletes would not have the benefits of a red shirt season and lose a year of eligibility if they should get hurt or have to miss the season for any reason. It is not likely that athletes would want to take the chance of losing eligibility, and the subsequent exposure, that is vital to continue playing at the next level.

Colorado College certainly does not plan on going down without a fight. In a letter to the college’s alumni, Athletic Director Julie Soriero assured graduates that Colorado College "does not back down on the playing fields or the ice, and has no plans to back off of efforts to persuade the NCAA leadership to either drop or amend the proposal."

Will this determination pay off? That depends on multiple factors that have not been addressed yet.

Despite all these factors, the fate of the proposal may boil down to the values that separate Division I from Division III.

"What separates Division III from everyone else is that we don’t give scholarships," said John McCardell, who serves as the chair of the Division III Presidents Council in addition to his duties as the president of Middlebury College, in a press release following the council’s vote. McCardell went on to say that it was a "necessity that we need to bring our practices in line with our philosophy."

St. Olaf Athletic Director Matt McDonald is aware of the proposal but has not formed a strong opinion yet since he has not been contacted by any of the affected schools and is just beginning to analyze the issue.

“There are a lot of issues to be addressed within this proposal and there are certainly differences between Division I and Division III that must be accounted for,” McDonald said. “At this point, it doesn’t make sense to me for athletic departments to be multi-divisional.”

In this debate lies the classic David and Goliath story, but with both sides able to play either role. On one hand, the Division III Presidents Council is the obvious Goliath challenging the Eight’s David. However, should the Eight get support from the Division I board of directors, Division III would be resigned to the David role and would have to take on the giant that is Division I.

The only thing decided, then, is that David will slay Goliath. But who will carry the slingshot and who will come crashing down to earth?

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