News analysis: What’s next in Division III?
A recent Division III membership survey made a big splash well before its official release today, when preliminary findings halted discussion in late March of a suggestion to restructure the NCAA to address membership growth and diversity in the division.
However, the 75-question survey’s lasting importance might be found outside the one question that revealed strong support for the division’s current structure, because responses to its other questions are certain to spark closer study of specific problems arising from membership growth.
Most of Division III’s membership -- more than eight of every 10 schools -- supported maintaining Division III as it currently exists, while about 15 percent supported creating a new division or subdivision. That finding was decisive for the Division III Working Group on Membership Issues, which had suggested creating a new classification -- either a new division or subdivision -- based on higher minimum sports sponsorship and also featuring other membership standards that would have distinguished it from Division III.
The idea was to relieve pressure from membership growth on the current structure, while carving out another option for sponsoring intercollegiate athletics under the NCAA umbrella. But a large majority of Division III schools not only expressed support for the status quo structurally; they also strongly endorsed such recently legislated criteria as playing-season lengths and maximum numbers of contests -- subjects of contentious Convention debates not so long ago. They also expressed comfort with current limits on practice opportunities during nontraditional seasons, though they disagree somewhat on whether they want to play more or fewer contests during those periods.
Probably the most positive takeaway from the survey is that institutions value membership in Division III, and are willing to endure the strains of growth to maintain that affiliation.
“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, who led the Division III working group during the past year.
However, the strains on the division seem to be confirmed by responses to other questions in the survey. The survey reveals lingering differences among the division’s 442 active and provisional members on subjects such as appropriate levels of sports sponsorship, the now four-year-old ban on “redshirting,” and possibly even the division’s bedrock principle prohibiting athletics-related financial aid.
Only about half of the membership said it is comfortable with the sponsorship requirement of 12 sports (six men’s and six women’s sports) that goes into effect in 2010. Preferring more or fewer sports doesn’t mean that schools won’t or can’t live with the 12-sports requirement, but it still is significant that a quarter of the membership indicated it would prefer sponsoring either the current 10 required sports or fewer, while another quarter of the membership thinks a higher minimum is appropriate.
Answers to the survey’s question about “redshirting” -- the subject of four legislative proposals to either broaden or roll back the legislation’s scope in the years since the current ban’s adoption in 2004 -- indicate that at least 26 percent of the membership still objects to the prohibition.
Perhaps the survey’s most surprising result is this: At least half of responding institutions say that schools should be permitted to consider athletics “leadership” (such as serving as a team captain) in putting together financial aid packages for student-athletes -- provided the policy is consistent with the consideration of leadership in other student activities.
The membership previously has expressed reluctance to take such a step (including last year in responses to a Virtual Focus Group question about the possibility), out of fear it might lead to erosion of the division’s hallmark nonscholarship approach to athletics. In fact, legislative language to specifically prohibit aid based on athletics leadership was included in a package of modifications of legislation based on intent that was approved by the membership at January’s Convention in Nashville.
One Division III working group member suggested that the survey response possibly points not so much to a difference of opinion between segments of the membership, but instead to tension within the widely endorsed philosophy that “student-athletes should be treated just like other students.” The principle generally is understood to mean that student-athletes shouldn’t be advantaged, but concern is growing that Division III actually puts student-athletes at a disadvantage by undervaluing athletics’ role in shaping the students who enroll at its institutions.
Concern about that problem might be widespread, but differences in the level of that concern -- as well as disagreements over how to address it, such as were expressed in a debate at January’s Convention over providing separate academic services for student-athletes -- very well may uncover another philosophical fault line within the membership.
By supporting the current structure, most of the Division III membership indicated it can live with differences over philosophical issues -- at least so long as those differences don’t erode current membership standards.
Based on comments submitted with surveys as well as views offered during a membership issues forum at January’s Convention, leaders at many member institutions believe that structurally addressing those differences of opinion just isn’t worth the potential damage to enrollment-dependent schools that tout their involvement in Division III’s unique nonscholarship brand of athletics to attract students and build community support.
But more direct consequences of membership growth -- which research indicates will result in a 480-member division by 2020 at the current rate of expansion -- will be less easy to ignore. That certainly was the parting warning from the now-disbanded Division III working group, which stated that continuing growth not only might aggravate philosophical differences, but make it increasingly difficult to maintain current levels of championships access and national office services.
Division III also may struggle to grasp future impacts of such conditions as continuing growth in Division I and efforts by Division II to attract new members, especially now that the Executive Committee Working Group on Membership -- which in addition to studying the possibility of restructuring provided a forum for sharing information among the divisions -- also has been dismantled.
While many questioned the importance of philosophical differences in comments submitted with the membership survey comments and also in the Convention discussion, few suggested that growth isn’t a problem.
In its final report, the Division III working group urged various committees to address the impact of growth in specific areas. The Championships Committee will be asked to consider ways of dealing with pressures on access to postseason competition; the Membership Committee will devote even more attention to membership standards, education, compliance and accountability; the Strategic Planning and Finance Committee likely will re-evaluate current programmatic priorities while considering achievable ways of increasing budgetary support, such as hiking membership dues; and the Financial Aid Committee will have to give further thought to balancing philosophy and practice in the awarding of financial aid.
Division III also likely will need to consider future implications for the newly legislated sport-sponsorship minimum of 12 sports, as new members typically will sponsor fewer than the current Division III average of 16.5 sports.
Those committees and ultimately the division’s Presidents and Management Council will be charged with providing leadership in addressing those issues, but right now, the only real direction those groups have received from the membership is this: Don’t break up Division III.
The survey results point to growth-related issues where uncertainty still exists and the best course for the future remains elusive. But the membership should now be better equipped to chart that course, using information gleaned from research conducted by the Division III working group, as well as the membership’s own responses to the survey.
“It’s the task of leadership to provide information and then listen,” said Valerie Cushman, former Division III Management Council chair and a member of the Division III working group. “We now must listen to what the membership is saying, while continuing to educate about the issues.”
Both processes continue at a series of Town Hall Meetings May 8 in Indianapolis, May 19 in Boston and June 2 in San Antonio, where Division III’s leadership will be listening for new ideas, and the membership will begin demonstrating what it has learned during the past year.
© 2010 The National Collegiate Athletic Association