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The presidents of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III colleges are now considering a proposal that would redefine the current division, of which Middlebury and its New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) institutions are members.  The rationale for this proposal is rooted in the belief that the recent growth in Division III, now with more than 420 member institutions, and continued growth anticipated, has altered, and will further alter, the character of D-III athletics.  NESCAC, arguably the most successful D-III conference in the division, is also the conference with the most stringent rules that govern varsity athletics, including the length of each season, the number of contests, student eligibility, practice schedules, recruiting policy, post-season play, and others.

Interest in this topic became national as a result of two books published in 2001 and 2003 (“The Game of Life” and “Reclaiming the Game”) that questioned the degree to which the balance between academics and athletics at selective colleges had been compromised by an overemphasis on the latter.

The current concern is that with schools coming into D-III that have more lenient rules than NESCAC governing their athletics programs, the annual votes on rules changes taken at the national convention will soon run counter to NESCAC’s philosophy.  The anticipated rules changes would give our competitors on-field advantages that are seen as unfair.  To counter this, a number of D-III member institutions are encouraging colleges that share our (and their) conference’s philosophy on the balance between academics and athletics to support the proposal for a “Division IV” or “Division IIIa” and “Division IIIb sub-divisions.  By establishing a new division or sub-division, schools would be grouped and compete with schools that share more similar philosophies on the role of athletics on their campuses.  It would also allow the new division to introduce new and perhaps even more stringent rules guiding athletics at their institutions.

My initial reaction to all of this was that it would be good for Middlebury to compete with schools and athletic conferences that set similar parameters around their athletics programs.  It didn’t seem right to me (or “fair”) that some of our varsity teams compete against programs with student bodies that are two, three, and even five times the size of Middlebury’s—programs that begin their seasons weeks ahead of our teams, with many more games/contests under their belts before post-season play, and with fewer other restrictions on their recruiting, admissions, and other relevant areas. 

However, because of a student lunch that my wife Jessica and I hosted for the varsity spring sport captains last April, my thinking has evolved.  Pete Mellen, last year’s captain of the men’s lacrosse team (and best face-off man in D-III), listened to my comments on this apparent uneven playing field, and responded, “But President Liebowitz, who really cares?  We beat them all anyway.”  His position was seconded and supported by all other captains at that lunch.

His comment reframed (for me) the question this way: so what if other D-III conferences had rules more lax than our own, and so what if, on those campuses, a greater number of classes would be missed by varsity athletes, or too much time was expected from athletes in terms of their commitment to one activity on campus, or if some athletes were red-shirted, or any of the other things that would be out of “sync” with NESCAC philosophy?  If our conference retained the proper rules and balance, and was still able to compete successfully, who cares what the other 400+ D-III schools did?  We could still set the example and the standard.

Well, at least two issues come to mind.  First, since NESCAC occupies a leadership position within D-III athletics, to reject a proposal by the more academically oriented institutions to form a division within the NCAA committed to ensuring the balance between the classroom and the playing field would put our conference in an awkward position.  Some believe it would cast our institutions as hypocrites by not leading by example and supporting a move that at least claims to “reclaim the game.”  And second, if colleges with philosophies that differ greatly from NESCAC began to dominate D-III rules debates and voting so there was a wider discrepancy in rules governing athletics between most D-III schools and NESCAC schools, what would happen if NESCAC teams began to get pummeled in first round NCAA tournaments as a result?

Right now, of course, that is not happening.  In fact, NESCAC is the most successful conference in terms of NCAA championship play, but how much pressure would presidents of NESCAC schools begin to feel from student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors, alumni, and others if our current success gave way to early tournament departures?  How tempting would it be to compromise on the current balance we prize and celebrate to win more?

Several questions to consider:

  • If NESCAC retains its own high standards for how it runs its athletic programs, should we really care about a larger D-III?
  • Would moving to a D-IV or sub-divisions within D-III affect the recruitment of student-athletes at schools like Middlebury? Many coaches believe it would. Should that matter?
  • Since NESCAC teams often beat many D-III schools that are larger with more lenient policies guiding athletics, is this proposal, in reality, designed to make the would-be D-IV athletic conferences more competitive?
  • Would stricter guidelines on our athletics program, which might come with a new D-IV, be a good thing?

It seems to me that striving for the best of both worlds should guide our position on this issue: that is, providing the best competition for our student-athletes while, at the same time, applying the necessary policies to ensure a healthy balance between our academic and athletic programs.  That would mean choosing to remain in D-III while retaining the most stringent guidelines to ensure the kind of overall education we seek for our students.

I am interested to hear your views on this topic.  In the coming months, I plan to hold discussions with our coaches, varsity athletes, and our Athletic Policy Committee to gain multiple perspectives on this issue.  In the meantime, please send along your views.

And by the way, congratulations to our men’s soccer team—recent winners of the NCAA D-III national championship over a remarkable (and undefeated) Trinity University team.  Special congratulations to long-time Panther coach, Dave Saward, who, along with so many Middlebury coaches, represents the best of D-III athletics.

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