Neal Hannan points out this New York Times article on the future of Division III.

The diversity has bred discord, and now the alliance is preparing to split in two, a recognition of how fractured the membership is over issues like money, national championships and the appropriate mission of athletics in higher education.

The dispute would be more suited to the major college sports landscape, except that Division III is home to many of the nation’s top small colleges, and that brings an even bigger stake to the debate: the impact a split could have on academic rankings used by prospective students and their parents.

The result could be a new Division IV or a sub-division with a lesser designation. At many Division III institutions, athletics is a leading admissions recruiting tool that has been credited with raising retention rates. Any real or perceived de-emphasis of sports could diminish applicant pools or cause prospective students to decline admission offers — major factors used in the powerful U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Already, conferences are aligning themselves in various coalitions, although some prominent conferences involving athletic and academic elites, like Williams College in Massachusetts and Washington University in St. Louis, seem resistant to change. Hundreds of colleges could face awkward decisions, choosing between athletic or academic peers.

Short version seems to be that many NESCAC-type schools would like to be in Division IV (more teams, tighter recruiting/admissions/practice restrictions) while places (like Williams? Middlebury?) which use athletics-as-branding might want to stay in Division III. But Williams wouldn’t want to be the only NESCAC school in Division III so it needs other schools to stay as well.

If the division splits along the lines expected, Amherst would probably go with its conference members to the traditional category and would forfeit playing against the most competitive, national-level basketball programs and the spotlight that goes with it.

Now multiply the angst of that choice by 30 sports and hundreds of institutions.

While it is a given that the New England colleges will stick together — they are among the most acclaimed small colleges in the country — a split of Division III would probably break up other athletic conferences and splinter the academic benefits by association that those groupings currently yield.

Sounds good to me. Although much of the anti-athlete attitude implicit in Reclaiming the Game and Williams’s own Report on Varsity Athletics is unsupported prejudice, I would much rather have a Williams with fewer academically weak Ephs (AR 4s and below) even if that means that the students on our sports teams are less skilled. They will still try as hard and learn as much. The formation of a Division IV makes this outcome more likely.

“My coaches have already told me, ‘Forget it, it would be such a negative to be in a sub-division,’ ” said Ronald D. Liebowitz, the president of Middlebury College. “Personally, I doubt students would stop choosing Williams, Amherst or Middlebury because we’re in a Division IV. But I know others feel differently.”

Liebowitz is correct. I have never heard of a smart applicant (academic rating greater than the Williams average) who would turn down Williams because it was in a Division IV rather than a Division III. As long as this new Division IV offered all the wonders of post-season competitions and the potential glory of a national championship, what is the problem? After all, do desirable applicants ever choose to go to a Division II school instead of Williams just because they want to compete at a higher level? Not in numbers enough to make a difference.

Lisa Melendy, the acting athletic director at Williams College, said that at last month’s convention she was seated with several other athletic directors from her New England conference who are viewed as reform-minded traditionalists.

“When the leadership started telling us about the inevitability of a split, we all looked around and said, ‘Who decided we had to split?’ ” Melendy said. “We like the way things are. It’s a big group, but we can handle it. I like the diversity, instead of just playing the same New England or Eastern schools.

“When push comes to shove, I still think the membership won’t want to split.”

Boo Hoo for Lisa Melendy! She gets bored going to Bates every year. Tough. This isn’t about what coaches want. This is about what is best for the academically serious students who represent the heart of Williams. Also, what is this nonsense about playing against someone besides New England schools? Melendy wants to send the soccer team on a tour of California? The vast majority of Williams sports contests always have been and always will be played against New England schools because traveling further is inconsistent with serious academics. And, nothing about a Division IV would prevent national championships against similar schools, wherever they might be located, just like now.

I understand that some reformers want to end national championships, but I suspect that this is a negotiable. A Division IV with other reforms (especially regulations which made athletes representative of the student body) would be such a win that allowing national championships in this context would be fine. With any luck, the new Division would be so small that the national championship would involve little more than two or three week-end tournaments.

As to what happens when “push comes to shove,” I would not be too sure if I were Melendy. NESCAC presidents would love nothing more than to raise academic standards even higher than they already are. Other elite-wanna-be colleges feel the same. If people like Morty and Liebowitz want a split, then I think that a split will happen.

Institutions ultimately will choose which category to join, and a tussle over the grouping that gets to call itself Division III has already started. The traditionalists say they were there first and should remain. The nonreformers say they did not force the changes and that the traditionalists can go to Division IV if they are unhappy. Majority may rule.

Some, like officials at Williams, a top-ranked academic institution with perhaps Division III’s best athletic program, worry about the stigma of being associated with a Division IV.

“At the convention, there were people walking around saying, ‘I’ll never join a Division IV,’ ” Melendy said. “No one wants to be in Division IV. The name has such a substandard sound. It sounds like you’ve been demoted.”

Boo Hoo for Lisa Melendy! It doesn’t sound like you have been “demoted” to the sorts of students who Williams should most want to attract, students who are not necessarily the ones that Lisa Melendy cares the most about.

Again and again, we have seen the conflicted between coaches like Melendy who want to enroll great athletes who are decent scholars and faculty like, say, Sam Crane who want to enroll great scholars who are decent athletes. Every movement in the last 7 years has been toward Crane’s position and away from Melendy’s. Is there anything to prevent that trend from continuing? Not that I can see.

By the way, the best regulation for the reformers (and something which NESCAC or even Williams alone could implement right now) would be better disclosure of athlete credentials/performance. Publish on the web the average credentials (SAT scores or academic rating) of the athletes (perhaps weighted by playing time) on each team in conjunction with those of the student body as a whole. (To protect privacy, you could publish the data for last years team.) As long as the team as a whole “looks like” the campus, there is no reason to think that the school provides excessive admission advantages to athletes. Also, publish the college academic performance of the team as well. This would ensure that athletes, as a group, are devoting adequate time to their studies. Pay close attention to teams/coaches that don’t seem to measure up.

I think that this single reform (because of the peer-pressure which such transparency would engender) would do more to assuage the fears of the Reclaiming the Game faction than anything else.

Related posts here, here and here.

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