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By David Pickle
An early November trip to Monterrey reinforced the beliefs of key Lone Star Conference officials that Division II should extend its pilot program for international members to Mexican institutions.
Pat O’Brien, president of West Texas A&M and chair of the Division II Presidents Council, and LSC Commissioner Stan Wagnon visited Monterrey Tech (Tecnológico de Monterrey) and the University of Nuevo Leon (Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León) the week of Nov. 5 and returned believing that potential exists to benefit parties on both sides of the border.
“Both Monterrey Tech and the University of Nuevo Leon could be great additions to Division II,” O’Brien said. “Both institutions are solid academically and have superb academic and athletics facilities, along with significant athletics traditions. The president of each university expressed strong support for becoming members of Division II.”
The Division II membership will vote at the January NCAA Convention on whether to extend the 10-year pilot, which runs through 2018, to Mexican institutions. The pilot currently applies only to Canadian colleges and universities; in September, Simon Fraser University of Burnaby, B.C., became the NCAA’s first international member when it joined Division II.
Advocates for Mexican expansion acknowledge that circumstances may be more complicated than they were for adding Canadian schools, but O’Brien and Wagnon both cite important − and sometimes overlooked – reasons for expanding the pilot program.
“The principal argument for expanding the international pilot to Mexico is to provide our students the opportunity to learn more about the culture of Mexico, to interact with students from different backgrounds, and to dispel unreal stereotypes of what living and learning in Mexico is like,” O’Brien said. “I can see through this pilot program in athletics we can expand interactions with Mexican universities in a full array of student-exchange programs, faculty exchange programs and cooperative research.”
During the visit, O’Brien said he and Wagnon met with Monterrey Tech and Nuevo Leon athletics officials and university leadership, discussing “both broad issues and some wonkier stuff.” They toured academic spaces and athletics facilities. The discussions dealt with the missions, programs (athletics and academics) and demographics of each university. They also talked with the Mexican officials about Division II philosophy, the certification of players, financial aid and compliance with NCAA rules.
At the moment, O’Brien and Wagnon agree that − given its U.S. regional accreditation status − Monterrey Tech appears to have an easier path for NCAA membership than Nuevo Leon.
Monterrey Tech is a private institution, with total enrollment exceeding 90,000 at more than 30 campuses throughout Mexico (the LSC representatives made it clear that membership would be only for a single campus, presumably the one in Monterrey). It has the significant advantage of being accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools since the NCAA requirement of accreditation by an American agency became an issue in Simon Fraser’s case.
“With Monterrey Tech, they already have some of the same regulations in place that we have,” Wagnon said, “but what’s even more important is that they’re doing things for the same purpose that we are, such as wanting their student-athletes to have a well-rounded experience. So my initial impression is that they would be able to make a very smooth transition, whereas if Nuevo Leon wants to pursue it, there’s going to be more of an adjustment on their end.”
The schools are members of different athletics associations, with the experience at Nuevo Leon being more akin to what’s offered in Division I (perhaps even somewhat beyond), which would require a substantial philosophical modification on their part.
Regardless, O’Brien and Wagnon said the athletics commitment at both schools is top-flight, probably much greater than most Americans would assume. Because of that and because of the significant educational and cultural opportunities, they want the Division II membership to put aside as many preconceived notions as possible and consider the issue from a risk-benefit perspective.
Safety, of course, is considered the greatest risk. Drug-trafficking violence in Northern Mexico has been extreme in recent years, and the situation in Monterrey has been especially bad. Officials in Mexico acknowledge the problem and, if granted membership, have volunteered to play home games at cities on the American side of the border for as long as the danger is deemed unacceptable.
But O’Brien emphasized that the ultimate goal would be play games on Mexican campuses.
“Clearly, to achieve the full benefit of expanding Division II into Mexico, we would want to have home games of the Mexican universities played on their respective campuses,” he said. “I am optimistic that Mexico will be able to resolve its current security problems in the near future, just as we in the United States resolved the rampant violence associated with the American Mafia wars of the 1920s and 1930s and the racial violence of the post-Civil War period.”
Wagnon is less concerned about violence in Monterrey per se since hotels and the universities themselves appear to be secure. He believes the greater concern is in the two-hour drive from the Texas border to Monterrey.
“There were nice parts of Monterrey that were every bit as nice as the nice parts of Dallas,” Wagnon said. “You see a lot of the same brands down there that we have here, such as Best Buy and Office Depot. In many ways, one of the most interesting things for me was to see so many similarities between the culture in Mexico and the culture in Texas.”
Said O’Brien: “Parts of Monterrey do have the appearance of a third-world country. However, Monterrey is a large industrial city (metro population of 4.1 million) with modern factories and upscale neighborhoods. There are parts of the city in which an individual would be hard-pressed to distinguish whether they were in downtown Monterrey, downtown Omaha or downtown San Antonio.”
Trappings of the drug war are visible, Wagnon said. Downtown streets are patrolled with cars featuring platforms that support two or three visibly armed policemen. Wagnon said the scene would be alarming for Americans on their own streets but that Mexican citizens appear to welcome the show of force for its role in curbing the violence.
Despite such reminders of the trouble, both Wagnon and O’Brien said they felt safe during the trip.
“I felt no less safe on this trip than I have in Tegucigalpa, Honduras; San Jose, Costa Rica; Antigua, Guatemala; Panama City, Panama; Quito, Ecuador; or Porto Alegre, Brazil,” O’Brien said. “In each place, you have to be aware of your surroundings and recognize that there are some parts of the city in which you should not wander during certain time periods.”
Mainstream Monterrey, however, is closely tied to interests in the American Southwest. It is closer to the U.S. (140 miles from Laredo) than most people think. Business relations overlap the border – and so do families.
“There is a very close connection of the peoples of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico,” O’Brien said. “Settlers of Texas in its early days were from France, Anglos from the United States and Mexicans. Over the years, there has been a very large number of Mexicans who have immigrated to Texas. The family links are tight.”
Wagnon saw an example as they were leaving the hotel at the end of the trip.
“Pat strikes up a conversation with the bellman,” he said, “and the bellman asks him what he does for a living and Pat points to his shirt and the West Texas A&M logo. And the young man says, ‘Oh, I have friends who go to school there. I’m going to get on Skype this afternoon and tell them I was here talking to you.’ So we’re sitting there talking to the bellman in Monterrey and he’s got family in Denver and he’s got family in El Paso.
“In many ways, Monterrey is not in a whole different world than where we operate already.”