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By David Pickle
One of the best aspects of the NCAA is its diversified approach to athletics.
People don’t read or hear much about the differences among Divisions I, II and III, and the takeaway is often distorted when the topic is discussed. How many times have we encountered stories in which athletes from Division I revenue sports are collectively trashed to heighten the virtue of small-college players?
In fact, the value of Divisions II and III is found not in the unique nobility of the participants or their schools. The worth instead is that hundreds of thousands of young people have life-expanding opportunities to learn and compete. The three primary feature stories in this issue of Champion in fact focus on student-athletes from all three divisions, including Brian Burnsed’s excellent article on the motivations behind Division III competition (see page 54).
The division in the middle faces special challenges. The numbers of the divisions – I, II and III – suggest a continuum, and alumni, boards and fans often consider Division I membership the final stage of a fully evolved program. That attitude, combined with a reclassification process that became more restrictive only recently, has expanded Division I membership about 10 percent over the last decade, mostly from reclassifying Division II members.
Successful programs that remain in Division II face constant pressure to justify their position. As with all difficult circumstances, the path is not always clear, and eventual choices are not necessarily right or wrong. However, because the NCAA offers options, administrators can classify their athletics program at a level that saves resources and provides more opportunities to succeed competitively.
If decisions were based solely on money, Division II would be much bigger than its current membership of 290 institutions. The mean expense for Division I Football Championship Subdivision programs is $13.1 million. The middle-of-the-road Division II program with football costs about $4.5 million. Revenue offsets must be considered, of course, but Division II research has shown that the average program reclassifying to DI will pay about $2 million extra each year compared to what it would cost to remain in Division II. Many schools consider that additional cost to be justified, but for schools that want to use the option, the NCAA provides a conservative choice in Division II.
The non-Division I alternatives lead to abundant opportunities for student-athletes. More than two thirds of NCAA member schools are found in Divisions II and III. Of about 430,000 student-athletes playing NCAA sports each year, more than 60 percent (about 263,000) compete outside Division I.
Most of them are skilled performers whose sports careers will conclude at the end of their final college contest. Along the way, they will be able to enjoy elitelevel competition that corresponds with their abilities.
A couple of recent events made this all a bit more real for me. The first was a bus trip I took with the Colorado State-Pueblo softball team (see page 46). The Division II softball world is void of pretense. The teams usually compete before small crowds, often drive long distances, stay in ordinary hotels and eat countless meals at franchise restaurants. I asked one of the players what makes it all worthwhile. She looked at me as though the answer couldn’t be more obvious. “It’s softball,” she said.
The other was at the Division II National Championships Festival in May. Abbey Gittings had helped her Nova Southeastern team to the lead of the Division II Women’s Golf Championships. But on the back nine of the third round, she was struck with terrible back spasms. She doublebogeyed the 15th, bogeyed the 16th, bogeyed the 17th and was in tears by the time she finished the 18th.
As it happened, Nova Southeastern had been playing a high-risk game all spring. Golf allows five players to compete, with the four best scores counting. But a player had not returned after the midterm break, and coach Amanda Brown chose to go with only four golfers. That meant that if Gittings couldn’t finish, Nova couldn’t turn in a team score. Not only did Gittings tough it out the next day and help her team to the title, she shot a final-round 73 and won the individual championship.
“I was going to play if I had to crawl around,” she said after the round. “I wasn’t going to let the team down.”
Afterward, as a solitary video crew interviewed Brown, Gittings stretched out in the grass beside her coach. She wasn’t listening too closely to the questions and answers; instead, she appeared to be mentally reliving the experience of the previous 24 hours. When she came to the best moments, she would close her eyes, turn her head to the sky and form a big smile as she treasured the image.
It was a life moment for her, and for her teammates as well. And it was possible, at least to some degree, because the NCAA offers high-quality classification options and because the school chose to take advantage of them.
That sort of stuff – the rewarding of tenacity and competitive drive – happens every day, regardless of level of competition. It’s the best part of college sports, and it’s available for no more than a $5 ticket every day at almost any Division II or III school.Last Updated: Aug 15, 2012