In a world where NCAA Division I increasingly resembles the glossy and high-stakes look and feel of professional sports, one small college Division III conference is taking steps to ensure that in the contest of athletics vs. academics, the realm of books and classes remains firmly in the lead. It's an example the school presidents are hoping others will follow.
The Centennial Conference, the athletic association in which Johns Hopkins plays most of its NCAA Division III sports, earlier this month adopted a reform package aimed at enhancing its academic and athletic balance. The new regulations, adopted by unanimous vote, will require Johns Hopkins and the conference's other 10 members to place more restrictive rules on eligibility and further limit the allowed number of regular-season games, exhibition matches and practices.
According to the conference's governing body, the goal of the reforms is to foster the ideals of Division III athletics, which are to ensure that the academic experience remains the priority and fundamental purpose of each institution. The changes come in response to the steady escalation in recent years of scheduled games and practices, according to Steve Ulrich, executive director of the conference.
"There was too much of Division I beginning to creep into Division III," Ulrich said. "In the push to win national championships, and to have more games played against the best teams, the seasons have gotten longer, and teams have practiced more."
Crafted from five months of discussions with presidents, athletic directors and coaches, the reforms were enacted at the Centennial Conference Presidents Council's annual meeting at Haverford College. In attendance were the presidents of each of the member schools. Along with Johns Hopkins, the other members are Bryn Mawr, Dickinson, Franklin and Marshall, Gettysburg, Haverford, McDaniel, Muhlenberg, Swarthmore, Ursinus and Washington colleges.
Jerome Schnydman, executive assistant to Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody, said the reforms do nothing more than place reasonable limits on student athletic participation.
"Johns Hopkins University is anxious to stay true to the ideals of Division III sports," said Schnydman, who attended the June 4 council meeting along with President Brody. "[The Centennial Conference presidents] are taking a stand and hope the rest of the country will follow."
Presidents Council chair Tom Tritton said that while athletics should play an integral role in higher education, the games need to be put into proper perspective.
"The Centennial Conference member schools take great pleasure in the competition and camaraderie associated with college athletics," said Tritton, the president of Haverford College. "We also recognize that academics are our primary purpose, and thus we strive to find a proper balance between the life of the mind and the life of the body. The changes to our bylaws are intended to move us toward that balance and also to invite other Division III schools to join us."
In the effort to have other conferences adopt similar stances, the new reforms will be proposed at the 2004 national convention of NCAA Division III conferences, to be held in Nashville, Tenn., in January 2004, Ulrich said.
"This way, all 426 members of Division III will have the opportunity to vote on these proposals," he said. "Our hope is that we can get a majority position and make this a national mandate."
For most schools, including Johns Hopkins, the number of games played and practices held for each applicable sports program will be modestly reduced. Specifically, the reform package includes:
· The elimination of redshirting, a practice in which a student-athlete preserves a year of eligibility by not participating in competition for an entire season, thereby extending his or her undergraduate stay for a year. The new regulations state that a student who practices just once with the team beyond its first contest will expend a year of eligibility. The design is not to allow a student to delay his or her academic progress based on athletic reasoning.
· The further reduction in the conference's restrictive policy on nontraditional seasons, periods other than the regular season. For these intervals, the conference will reduce its sanctioned number of practice opportunities from 18 to 16 and its dates of competition from three to one.
· In a move to address missed class time for athletics, the conference is reducing by 10 percent the maximum number of games allowed for field hockey, soccer, volleyball, tennis and golf. Significant reductions also were approved for baseball, softball and lacrosse in the number of permissible contests while classes are in session. For basketball teams, the number of games will not be reduced, but the date of the fall practice will be moved back. Football was not addressed in the reforms due to health and safety concerns associated with altering the practice and season schedules.
The reduction in regular-season schedules will not go into effect until Aug. 1, 2004, as games have already been set for the upcoming academic year. All other reforms are effective immediately.
At Johns Hopkins, all varsity sports will be impacted except for lacrosse (a Division I sport) and swimming, which currently holds independent status.
Schnydman said the impact of the reforms on Johns Hopkins will be minor as "there is little difference between what was enacted and what the university has been practicing."
Tom Calder, the university's director of athletics, said that generally speaking the new regulations would mean just one or two, at the most, fewer games and practices per academic year for each sports program. The men's soccer team, for example, currently plays a 20-game schedule and under the new regulations would play a 19-game season, with 18 regular contests and one exhibition. Calder added that currently several teams, such as baseball, do not use the maximum number of practices or games in the nontraditional season.
In terms of the elimination of redshirting, Calder said the option is rarely exercised at Johns Hopkins due to the associated prohibitive financial costs.
"If we have redshirted a Division III athlete in the past, it was solely the decision of the student-athlete, not the institution," Calder said. "Quite simply, most kids can't afford to come back for a fifth year, so there has always been a built-in discouragement to losing a year of eligibility."
Calder said that the coaches of the JHU varsity teams have shown unified support for the reforms and agree that they send the right message to students.
"The Centennial Conference is trying to be proactive here, ensuring that athletics are not put ahead of the true aim of all these schools, which is to educate," he said.
The Centennial Conference was founded in 1981 as an eight-member football-only association. It expanded to an 11-member, all-sports conference in 1992.