Life in the balance: An inside view of Division II sports policy

By April Hansen

I’ll be honest. The mornings when my alarm blares at 6:15 a.m. for workouts, I think to myself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I putting my body through this?” And it never fails, every time I reply: "Because I love it.”

Do I love working out almost three times a day? Do I love playing volleyball nine months out of the year? Do I love training so hard that there are days I literally have to roll out of bed? Yes, but how did I get here?

I can’t remember what high school volleyball was like. The only conditioning I remember was running the mile the first day of practice. I remember the speed of the game was a lot slower. When it came time to choose a college, I had to choose between playing National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I basketball or NCAA Division II (DII) volleyball. I chose the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) not only for the volleyball program, but what DII prides itself on: “Life in the Balance.”

I knew I didn’t want to “just” be an athlete. I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunities of college. I think I have done that. I volunteer. I work. I socialize. I play. I make the Dean’s list. If I would have chosen Division I basketball, I don’t think I would have had these opportunities. That is why, to coin the slogan, “I chose Division II.” However, recent legislation --and some of my fellow student-athletes-- have begun to second-guess the DII mantra.

Five years ago, the NCAA gave DII a challenge: find an identity as an institution. The motivation for “Life in the Balance” provides student-athletes the opportunity to succeed in their higher education through high-level competition on the court, and academic and societal advantages in the classroom. However, recent debates have suggested that my life as a student-athlete is out of balance.

A buzzword began floating around the NCAA that was causing a lot of dispute: seasons creep. Administration officials from universities, as well as the NCAA, were becoming concerned by how athletic seasons were beginning alarmingly early and ending late. Karen Stromme, assistant director of athletics at UMD, was on the task force for the Life in the Balance initiative.

“Seasons creep was affecting students’ time in the classroom, coaches and trainers’ workplaces and institutional costs,” she said.

The fear of losing DII members, and the higher costs versus rewards, led the Management Council for DII to revamp Bylaw 17. This bylaw covers the rules and regulations of playing, as well as practice, seasons. The Management Council is made up of Athletic Directors and Commissioners of member universities. Butch Raymond is the commissioner for the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC), which includes UMD.

“As a whole, the NSIC supported the various parts of Bylaw 17,” said Raymond.

In our 2009 volleyball season, we had 30 regular-season competition dates, and our season lasted 15 weeks. Effective this fall, two of our competition dates will be cut. The season will only be 14 weeks. We are one of ten sports from which competition dates will be cut. Six sport seasons will be shortened; the report date for fall sports will be pushed back a week, and a seven-day “dead period” during winter break will prevent winter sport athletes from practicing and playing formally.

“Starting the seasons later is a good thing for universities because it is cost containing, since having student-athletes on campus so early is expensive,” said Raymond.

My question as a student-athlete is “why?” Why are these cuts necessary? Raymond answered this for me: cost control.

Currently, athletic programs across the country are feeling the burden of budget cuts in their programs. One cost-control measure endorsers are promoting is requiring students to report to their fall preseason a week later. They believe this will reduce the cost of having to feed and house more than 150 athletes on campus.

However, downsides to the later report date is a loss in competition dates and delays in the championship-segment of the fall season.  Bob Nielson, UMD’s head football coach, and director of athletics, is not in favor of the delayed championship date because it would be held right before the Christmas holiday. However, football was the only fall sport from which the new legislation didn’t cut competition dates due to the financial benefits the sport provides. This doesn’t seem consistent with the idea of “Life in the Balance” for all athletes.

Not only is cost control an issue, advocates for the revisions believe that by making these changes the students-athletes’ academics will benefit. Studies and statistics show that student-athletes, on average, graduate at a 9 percent higher rate then non-athletes in DII. In 2002, the graduation rate for all students was 47 percent, and for student-athletes 55 percent. This refutes the "dumb jock" myth, said Stephen Jordan, chair of the DII Presidents Council in a NCAA News article. At UMD, in the past 24 years, 94 percent of student-athletes have graduated. In the 2008-2009 academic year, the total average grade point average (GPA) of both men’s and women's sports teams was a 2.99. This is evidence that student-athletes' academics are not out-of-balance.

"Blanket legislation is not the best way to get to the root of the issue," said Bob Nielson.

With more than 350 institutions at the DII level, some universities aren't struggling with an academic imbalance, but the high-rising costs could mean the loss of some DII schools who are struggling both academically and financially.

Nielson has "mixed emotions" about Bylaw 17.

"Are seasons getting to long? Yes’” said Nielson. "It's good for spring sports especially, but is taking away a competition weekend going to change a GPA?”

In DII, most of the funding institutions receive from the NCAA is to support stimulus programs such as championships, conventions and post-graduate scholarships. Member institutions need to raise money for athletic scholarships, travel expenses and equipment. Recently, since the economy has been going through a tough time, universities have had to cut spending and athletic departments are struggling. At UMD, the only sport that generates a substantial amount of money for the program is DI Men's Hockey (which isn’t affected by the bylaw). All four of the proposed changes are related to cutting costs, so why is the student-athletes’ welfare being questioned? Apparently, because they listened to those student-athletes.

I am a member of the NCAA's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) for UMD, and in early December 2009, the national SAAC committee voted for three out of the four proposals of Bylaw 17. The national SAAC committee realized there was extreme opposition from athletes and coaches, but tried to look at the "big picture."

“We did vote in favor, and really because of the understanding of what student-athletes in other conferences felt about it. The NSIC is a great representative for life in the balance, but we needed to keep student-athletes across the country in mind,” said Paul Muecke, football player at Southwest Minnesota State and the NSIC national SAAC representative.

The national SAAC committee had no position on cutting competition dates for fall sports, but supported DII's plan on balancing the life of their student-athletes.

"The Life in the Balance initiative is striving to put the student back into the student-athlete," said Bill Haller, compliance coordinator at UMD.

UMD is a member of the NSIC, and as a member of UMD’s SAAC we strongly opposed Bylaw 17.

This past January, at the 2010 NCAA National Convention, the national SAAC committee met with the Presidents Council to express the opinions of the student-athletes. Member schools are only allowed one vote on legislation, and student-athlete SAAC members at UMD met with Chancellor Kathryn Martin to express the concerns and opinions on Bylaw 17. Chancellor Martin voted for various proposals of Bylaw 17.

“If it’s to the benefit of the student-athletes’ strong academic success, I will vote yes for it,” said Chancellor Martin.

The vote of the President's Council for Bylaw 17 wasn't unanimous. They voted in favor of the bylaw and the changes will go into affect beginning Fall 2011.

The second phase of the “Life in the Balance” initiative has already begun. In March, the Management Council met to discuss the non-championship segment (off-season) of DII sports. Presidents at the National Convention in January agreed they would not eliminate this unique feature of DII, but would look toward changing certain policies. These policies could include cutting back on the time that student-athletes are training and working out during their offseason. The national SAAC committee meets in June to discuss the second phase more fully.

“I know a lot of student-athletes are against the second phase, and I think the offseason is the best time to work on skills and ability. Spring is another time to compete, and to earn a position, and hone your skills better,” said Paul Muecke.

On April 14, the Management Council met for their spring meeting to determine what proposals will be included in Phase II of the “Life in the Balance” initiative. According to an article in the NCAA News, Councilor’s made little or no discussion on reducing the offseason.

“We’re moving forward and we’re keeping our options open,” said Management Council chair Kathleen Brasfield, director of athletics at Angelo State in an NCAA News article. “I want to emphasize that just because we’re looking at these issues doesn’t mean we plan to recommend reductions. We want to act in the best interest of Division II student-athletes and in the competitive interest of Division II sports.”

I have been a student-athlete for almost eight years. I chose this life, and I think it should be up to me whether I believe my life is in the balance or not. Costs-saving measures are important, but it shouldn’t jeopardize the competitive lives of student-athletes in DII.

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