NCAA membership classification issues are often poorly understood, as shown by a recent development in New Orleans.
A New Orleans Times-Picayune story detailed how city officials are pressuring the University of New Orleans about its decision to reclassify from Division I to Division II.
The athletics program at New Orleans has struggled for years, both from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then from the economic downturn over the last three or so years. University administrators first considered moving from Division I to Division III, but upon further consideration, they concluded that a move to Division II’s Gulf South Conference might be a better fit. University officials concluded that the Division II approach would be best not only for the athletics program (plans are to add football in five or so years) but also for the university in general as a means of boosting paid enrollment through Division II’s partial-scholarship model.
No doubt the city officials mean well, but their pressure is misguided. The real question facing the university is this: Is it better for an institution to pursue a strong Division II (or III) program or is it better for an institution to bet, against long odds, that its athletics program can eventually prosper at the Division I level?
The New Orleans program has survived at the Division I level since 2005 only because of a waiver of minimum sports-sponsorship requirements that were issued in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It does not currently have a football program, let alone a revenue-generating one. The circumstances all but scream for the rational decision that university leaders have made. The consequence of continued failure isn’t merely a noncompetitive athletics program; the consequence is nonexistence.
Just as Division I membership is not somehow inherently “big time,” Division II and III affiliation is not necessarily minor-league. In all cases, the experience is what the institution, the administrators, the coaches, the student-athletes and the fans make of it.
In this case, city of New Orleans officials should get out of the way and let University of New Orleans officials do what they do best: Make well-informed decisions about the future of their institution.