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First Contact

New football proposal to allow tackling and full equipment in the spring has Division III split

Domenic Fraboni didn’t venture to Canada in spring 2014 to see mountains and moose.

He went to get tackled.

Thanks to a rule permitting teams to compete on international trips, Fraboni and his teammates on the Concordia College, Moorhead, football team scrimmaged against a Canadian team in May 2014. The game, and an additional 10 days of padded practices, provided a rare chance for Division III football players to tackle and block outside the fall season. The practices and scrimmage, he says, helped him and his teammates acclimate to their offense’s rhythms and playbook before summer practices started. But there were disadvantages: A Concordia starter tore a knee ligament, and the extra contact took a toll on Fraboni that lingered into the season.

Were the benefits of additional contact worth the drawbacks? Fraboni isn’t sure, and his internal debate is a microcosm of the larger one in Division III that has manifested in a string of legislative proposals. Compelling arguments have been made on both sides, as evidenced by the 2015 NCAA Convention vote. During that business session, a proposal to allow pads and contact in football’s nontraditional segment was defeated twice by a handful of votes.

The nearly even split has emboldened yet another try: More than 20 schools have sponsored a nearly identical proposal on the 2016 legislative docket. Proponents such as Ithaca College head football coach Mike Welch insist it’s about fairness – other sports allow full practices in their nontraditional seasons, but football cannot. “We feel it’s wrong,” he says.

Opponents such as University of Northwestern-St. Paul President Alan Cureton – also chair of the Division III Presidents Council – argue that more contact would pose safety risks and, because of the sheer size and the violent nature of the game, a more robust spring would be too great of a burden on facilities and staff. “It’s all about the injury risk,” he says.

The new proposal, which differs only slightly from the one that was defeated at the 2015 Convention, calls for a 14-day spring segment that includes up to seven days of practice with full equipment and three days of live tackling.

Playing the sport without limitations, Welch argues, would give Division III athletes more time to learn safe tackling and blocking techniques that could reduce injuries. Despite the heightened risk, he argues, it could create a net safety benefit.

Equity, though, is the primary reason the schools insist they revived the proposal. When the Division III Management and Presidents councils opposed last year’s proposal, members noted that it would hinder a student-athlete’s ability to play another sport in the spring or to pursue other opportunities. Given that logic, Welch wonders if it should apply to other nontraditional seasons. Should they all be considered an encumbrance? “The football athlete isn’t being treated like the other athletes,” Welch says.

But football is unique, opponents like Cureton counter. Because of the massive rosters and higher injury rates, it cannot be viewed through the prism of baseball, soccer or lacrosse. “It’s totally different,” says Cureton, a former college football player and coach. “It’s not comparing apples to apples.”

Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members voiced their support for the proposal in January, arguing football players should have the same opportunities as their peers.

SAAC didn’t reach that decision easily; Fraboni, the Concordia football player, was part of several lengthy SAAC debates. Despite the appreciation he held for the time practicing for the spring game in Canada, he voiced opposition to the proposal. He thought the level of time and energy required by those handful of extra football practices contradicted the division’s core philosophy – ensuring students have ample opportunities for a well-rounded
college experience. Still, Fraboni says, he didn’t reach that decision easily.

Neither, it seems, will Division III.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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