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Town hall: Tensions arise from balancing objectives, ideals

‘Town Hall’ format seeks responses to growth
May 22, 2008 10:30:37 AM

By Jack Copeland
The NCAA News

Participants in a Division III Town Hall Meeting this week suggested that the difficulty of striking a balance between each institution’s own objectives and Division III ideals -- a problem amplified by continuing membership growth -- fuels tensions that persist among division members on a variety of issues.

Those tensions occasionally were on display Monday at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, as some of the more than 200 presidents, administrators and coaches attending the session identified challenges in ensuring that student-athletes are able to fully enjoy both athletics competition and campus life.

Others engaged in debate over such issues as whether Division III overemphasizes national championships, discriminates against students by banning consideration of athletics leadership in financial aid packaging, or infringes on student-athletes’ opportunities to engage in nonathletics activities outside the regular season.

Participants seemed to reinforce a recent survey’s finding that splitting into separate divisions or subdivisions isn’t the solution -- “at this time,” as an athletics director from a New England Small College Athletic Conference institution put it, while expressing frustration over recent “substantial” shifts away from what he termed past “thoughtful” legislative decisions. He cited this year’s vote to permit an earlier start date in basketball as an example.

But an athletics director from a Little East Conference institution said that while she thinks all Division III members “inherently” believe in the ideals expressed in the division’s philosophy statement, they also must deal with issues on a practical level in order to best serve their students.

“Everybody’s student body is different,” she said. “We have student bodies that are very diverse in terms of where they come from…and what allows those student-athletes to prosper, and to be retained by the institution and graduate within four or five years is wholly different from some other Division III institution.

“It’s not a matter of whether we agree with the academic and the nonathletic philosophy of Division III; it’s how best can an institution meet the needs of its student body. And that’s why I think we see opposite viewpoints on what is in the best interest of student-athletes and institutions.”

Another athletics director, representing a New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference institution, said part of the problem is that institutions may be subscribing only to parts of the Division III philosophy that best fit their objectives, rather than seeking a balance between all of the division’s ideals.

“I worry that we’re getting further away from the educational piece, and that we’re letting the championship piece drive a lot of our decisions,” she said. “I think schools are choosing to emphasize certain statements in the Division III philosophy statement.”

Varying interpretations of parts of the philosophy statement -- especially the “championship piece,” which emphasizes regular-season competition and conference championships but also supports providing opportunities for national championships participation -- certainly were evident during Monday’s discussion.

Noting extensive review of legislative exceptions that occurred earlier in the day during the annual Regional Rules Seminar -- the setting for the Town Hall Meeting -- a couple of speakers indicated concern about overemphasis on national championships.

The president of an Empire 8 institution suggested that Division III should settle the question of whether to sponsor championships through a membership vote, but made clear he believes they are beneficial both for institutions and for student-athletes.

“I think, if we keep championships in perspective, it makes for a very good experience for our players,” he said. “But don’t overdo it; keep it in balance. I think that’s going to be the key as we move forward.”

Another finding from the recent membership survey that put a stop to restructuring discussions sparked one of Monday’s most vigorous debates.

Several participants spoke in favor of considering such indicators of leadership as serving as a team captain in a high school sport in assembling financial aid packages for student-athletes, with some suggesting that the current ban on doing so is unfair.

“Philosophy should drive the discussion, and part of the Division III philosophy is that athletics is a contributor to a holistic education that makes someone better when they leave than when they came,” said an athletics director at a Commonwealth Coast Conference institution. “So we have to look at that part of it…if (student-athletes) have leadership in athletics, why should that be looked at as lesser than leadership in other areas, whether it’s academics, music, the arts, chess club, whatever it is?”

But a faculty athletics representative from an Empire 8 institution said recognizing athletics leadership roles opens up “Pandora’s box” as varying institutions define what constitutes leadership, while the president of an independent institution warned against equating athletics participation with leadership.

“I was quite disturbed by a couple of earlier comments that suggested athletics itself is a form of leadership,” he said. “I would urge you to think twice and three times before you express that view to your president and your faculty athletics representative. It’s going to win you a lot of disfavor for the idea of leadership.

“We must be very careful to be very exacting, narrow, and hold ourselves to a high standard if we’re going to start (considering athletics leadership) as a basis for scholarships.”

An associate athletics director from a New Jersey Athletic Conference institution alluded to the day’s recurring theme -- differences in institutions’ objectives -- in addressing financial aid.

“I think (recognizing athletics leadership in awarding financial aid) is a great idea and we should do it, but I think what is going to end up happening is you’ll have debate after debate after debate at the NCAA Convention, and legislation is going to keep coming up, and eventually we’ll get to a point where we restrict it (more). I think both sides have merit, because it’s very difficult to monitor.”

Significant support in the recent survey for increasing contests during the nontraditional season also generated debate in Boston.

A coach at a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference school suggested that student-athletes are engaging in more than one contest during that season anyway -- by playing contests against alumni and participating in outside tournaments without coaches’ supervision -- and that legislation should be more reflective of reality.

But other speakers suggested that scheduling more contests forces student-athletes to make a choice:  Be with their team, which they want to do, or take advantage of offseason nonathletic activities or job opportunities.

One of the major objectives of this spring’s series of Town Hall Meetings -- which concludes June 2 with a session in San Antonio -- is to gather ideas for coping with growth-related tensions in the division. The ideas will be shared with various Division III committees studying the issues raised at the forums and reflected in a series of “white papers” that will describe key growth-related issues in more detail.

Among ideas suggested in Boston:

•         Consider revising Convention voting procedures to make it more difficult to change legislation after it has been adopted by the membership.

•         Promote Division III’s attributes to faculty members to increase their support and advocacy for the division’s approach to intercollegiate athletics.

•         Consider a dues increase for Division III members, but ensure that it supports established priorities and be specific about how funds will be allocated toward addressing issues related to growth.

•         Review current penalties for institutions’ failure to meet established membership standards, in order to ensure they support adherence while recognizing standards may vary in importance.

•         Consider ways to encourage institutions to track persistence and graduation rates of  student-athletes, compared to the student body.


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