The conferences of 11 Division I lacrosse-playing schools could significantly impact the lacrosse futures of dozens of other programs that participate at that level of the game. That's a significant situation for a game that is still in the genesis of its growth, but one that college lacrosse may face sooner rather than later.
At the annual NCAA convention last week, administrators discussed giving greater autonomy in governance to five leagues -- the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, and ACC. Under the new model -- characterized as "Division IV" in the past -- the NCAA would permit these conferences to make legislative decisions outside of the NCAA's traditional control and processes. The biggest issue on the table? Allowing these leagues to back up a dump truck of money and off-load it on its athletes:
The most publicized change the power conferences want to make is increasing compensation for athletes via a full-cost-of-attendance stipend. As it currently stands, there is a gap ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars for most athletes between what their scholarship covers and the actual cost of attending college. Power conference leaders have tried for two years to pass legislation to increase athlete compensation, but have been outvoted by schools with less revenue to share.
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[T]here are plenty of schools from outside the football-driven power structure who are concerned about what such legislation might mean for them. They see this as a chance for the rich schools to further distance themselves from the mid-major and low-major programs that would not be able to afford the additional cost.
"I worry that the gap is going to get so large that the notion of competitive opportunity might not be possible for the rest of us," said Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby, who was perhaps the most outspoken person in the two days of meetings. "I don't think we're under the illusion that a Northeastern, or anyone in the mid-major category, is going to win [basketball] national championships. But those differences in revenue should be obstacles that prevent us, if we get in the tournament, from being able to win some games and advance.
"I just hope there are some concessions, and maybe some of us have the opportunity to compete a little more fairly."
Resource competition is already a major concern for Division I lacrosse. Syracuse and Virginia are in much different financial positions than Mercer and VMI. The capability of well-funded athletic programs to exert dominance over their less-affluent peers has historically impacted the competitiveness of Division I lacrosse, but the ability of schools in power leagues to totally change the game through increased financial assistance to its athletes -- a situation that schools in non-power leagues may not be able to approach -- carries with it potential consequences that college lacrosse has never faced. If full-cost-of-attendance is implemented outside of football and hoops in these five conferences, the simple existence of a non-uniform approach to scholarship dollars matters in a host of different ways to college lacrosse:
- Recruiting: The power of the 12.6 scholarship limit is skewed under a full-cost-of-attendance principle. Would a kid take a partial scholarship to Lehigh if he can get a partial scholarship to Duke that also carries with it a greater stipend to offset his needs? The possibility of 11 schools to further consolidate talent at the Division I level is something that could quickly emerge.
- Competitiveness: In an environment where recruiting changes and talent potentially accumulates in only a handful of schools, leveraged competitiveness, residually, likely decreases across Division I's landscape. Roby's comments are especially notable in the context of college lacrosse: Division I has honored only nine different champions in its 40-year history; six of those champions hold membership -- or will have future membership -- in one of the five conferences that seek greater autonomy in how they distribute scholarship dollars. Further establishment of the establishment is a scary thing for a game that has become more competitively balanced over the last decade or so.
- Growth: Division I lacrosse is slowly approaching 70 schools on its roll. If teams from power leagues are able to concentrate talent through recruiting and eliminate competitive balance, is there the necessary motivation for schools to add a Division I program to its athletic offerings? Is there the necessary motivation to keep a lacrosse program on its roll of athletic offerings? Is the cost of funding cost-of-attendance stipends oppressive enough to keep schools in power leagues from even considering adding lacrosse to its list of athletic offerings? The potential for sponsorship stagnation could occur under this new model.
This is, once again, a development built around football and basketball that possibly creates all kinds of issues for a game that isn't either of those two sports.