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"Division IV" and College Lacrosse

I have no idea, either.

Drew Hallowell

The NCAA has had a lot of rotten cabbage and tomatoes thrown at their offices recently. Much of the scorn directed at the institution is reasonable -- the NCAA is, in a ton of ways, a backwards relic that isn't grounded in reality. In this turmoil, though, something important has emerged: New models and thoughts about college athletics governance. The overt purpose of these approaches are to align reality with itself, with a latent purpose of raking dollar bills into piles as if they were autumn leaves falling from trees.

An entity called Faculty Athletics Representatives ("FAR") recently drafted a paper that outlines proposed principles and models for a new college athletics structure. It's basically a call for a new athletics division in the college landscape -- "Division IV." The proposal makes sense from a football standpoint, but the scope of the document holds utility only in that context: Outside of football concerns, the proposal remains hopelessly/purposely/inadvertently unclear. In fact, the only mention of basketball -- college sports' other dump truck that unloads piles of money -- comes in a short paragraph about the current Division I structure and what the appearance of Division IV may mean to non-football pursuits:

The 1A FAR Board supports a governance structure that leaves intact the Division I championship structure in which FBS institutions compete. We urge this for three reasons. First, the men’s basketball tournament funds more than 90 percent of NCAA operations, both at the national office and for all NCAA divisions, and we have no wish to create major impediments to their ability to function. Second, many NCAA operations and services funded by the men’s basketball tournament inure to the direct benefit of FBS institutions and conferences – enforcement; the eligibility center; interpretations; and student-athlete reinstatement (just to name a few). Third, because we believe that the Division I championship structure works well, we see no good reason to isolate FBS teams and conferences. (Moreover, although we have not examined competition numbers, we wonder whether some FBS-only championships would have a sufficient number of teams and student-athletes to warrant separate championships.)

The 1A FAR Board recognizes, however, that an FBS division (or subdivision within Division I) with authority to adopt its own policies and bylaws will create stresses within the non-FBS institutions and conferences in Division I. We have not attempted in this proposal to explore in any detail what these consequences might be, but we believe that this effort must be undertaken and, to the extent possible, the new governance structure should account for the consequences (either by drafting to avoid them or recognizing their existence and concluding that the benefits of a new governance structure still make it “a go”).

Lacrosse is, once again, relegated to the part of the discussion table with a "Who are you again?" sign taped to a seat. There are only 13 FBS schools that field a men's lacrosse program: North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Virginia, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Penn State, Massachusetts, Ohio State, Air Force, Michigan, Army, and Navy. The likelihood of these schools breaking away under a new division and holding their own championship in men's lacrosse is slim (if not non-existent). Division IV -- or whatever it's going to be called -- is likely going to need to piggy-back on Division I for lacrosse purposes, which means one thing: How will Division IV impact Division I lacrosse? The "stresses" that the paper note are exclusively the issues that surround college lacrosse at the highest level.

Unfortunately, the paper doesn't detail important particulars as to what these consequences may be; all that's illustrated are the following examples -- "Research initiatives in the area of concussions and other health and well-being issues for student-athletes"; "Permitting institutions to offer student-athletes in head-count sports athletic scholarships equal to full cost of attendance (and basing the percentage scholarships offered in equivalency sports on the full cost of attendance)"; and "Increasing athletic scholarships offered in women’s sports." There are, obviously, other considerations here (lacrosse-specific ones), and many are as important -- if not more important -- than what the paper proffers:

  • If Division IV is -- as intended -- going to swim in a vault of money like Scrooge McDuck, will the resources gap between Division IV and Division I schools grow to an untenable position? And if so, is that good for a game that is on a growth trajectory, featuring some of the most leveraged competition that the sport has seen in its entire history? Is that an acceptable outcome? 13 schools potentially becoming the entire scope of major college lacrosse seems antithetical to the model and support system that has been put in place to encourage schools to pursue the game.
  • Will this new structure encourage more schools to pursue big time football (and chase a big payday), thereby investing more money in football to become competitive and leaving lacrosse in the dust as a sport eligible for budget cuts (if not cut completely)?
  • Will this generate even more conference realignment, and how will that impact the health and well-being of conferences (and its membership) that sponsor college lacrosse at the highest level? Will fewer opportunities to compete result from this change?

There are 63 lacrosse-playing institutions currently at the Division I level; that number will grow to 68 by the 2015 season. The residual impact of what a baker's dozen of schools decide to do here -- just under 20 percent of institutions competing at the highest level in the college game -- could dictate what the game looks like a decade down the road. And the problem with that, of course, is that lacrosse is a minor secondary concern in this discussion but holds a disproportionately high degree of uncertainty and potentially deleterious consequences. Hold on to your butts.