Changes needed in new NESCAC policy

Amherst and Williams do not agree on much – just ask an Eph about the relative importance of US News and World Report, or ask a Jeff about the relative importance of a football game. That might make you wonder why we, sports editors for the respective student newspapers of the two schools, are co-authoring what quite possibly could be the first ever column run simultaneously in the Williams Record and the Amherst Student.

We have written this column because we are completely disillusioned by the April 22 decision of the NESCAC member presidents. Before we left school in the spring, the issue on everyone’s minds was this sudden and unpopular decision by the presidents of the 11 member schools of the NESCAC to reform the structure of the conference and the conference’s approach towards post-season play. Why then has the issue apparently died in less time than it has taken the Williams football team to drive downfield at the end of the last two Amherst games?

In short, the decision revolves around two points. The first involves restructuring the conference to a so-called “playing conference,” or a conference where teams play all of the other members during the regular season, and a conference champion is determined through some “appropriate mechanism.”

The second — and more controversial — aspect of the decision revolves around the conference’s approach to post-season play. Under the six-year NCAA trial period voted into effect in 1993, any team that qualified for post-season play, whether for the NCAA Tournament or the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Tournament, was allowed to participate. Once the new policy goes into effect, one team from the conference— and one team only —will be allowed to advance to the NCAA’s or the ECAC’s.

At the time, the decision was met with considerable opposition at both Amherst and Williams, sufficient to motivate both of our newspapers to editorialize on it. Now, we are back at school, and very little — if anything — has been said or done.

Since its founding in 1971, the NESCAC has been dedicated to the delicate balance between academics and athletics. In the five-plus years since the conference began trial participation in the NCAA, athletes throughout the conference have excelled on the playing field, bringing home NCAA Championships too numerous to count, and memories and experiences that will last each scholar-athlete a lifetime. Why then did the presidents decide that the level of NCAA participation was too much?

Quite simply, the new proposal arose out of growing fears that the NESCAC schools, or certain schools within the NESCAC, are slowly starting to put athletics above academics. Whispers of illegal athletic recruiting, combined with a growing disparity in the strength of teams at the respective schools, signaled the need for change.

The problem is that the compromise simply will not accomplish what the presidents claim it will. First off, if the NESCAC is to become a playing conference, then each team will have to face all of the other teams in the conference during a season. Since the NESCAC’s fall and spring seasons are only eight to nine weeks long and there are 11 schools in the NESCAC, this would mean that instead of the big conference games occurring only on Saturday, there would occasionally have to be midweek conference games. The Jeffs or Ephs could easily find themselves playing a crucial Wednesday afternoon game in Clinton, New York, which would have an obvious impact on academic time.

Also, if most sports establish a NESCAC Conference Tournament at the end of the season to determine the conference champion, travelling to and participating in the conference tournament would have the same impact on teams as ECAC’s or NCAA’s do. In fact, it would actually affect more teams, since we would presume that at least eight conference teams would be eligible for the postseason tournament. The conference tournament structure, combined with the fact that one team would continue on to ECAC’s or NCAA’s, would in no way reduce the amount of time sports teams spend away from school.

A system that creates more important and further away weekday games, and does not do away with time-consuming and pressure-filled, end-of-the-season tournaments is supposed to help student-athletes’ academics?

The presidents also contend that with a smaller emphasis on outside postseason tournaments, there will be less pressure on the athletes to perform. However, with the NESCAC Tournament as the sole deciding factor for NCAA tournament participation, teams will be desperate all season long to win each game. It will be crucial to win in order to have a higher seed when the tournament rolls around or possibly to even have a chance of being in the playoff, depending on how NESCAC structures each tournament. Under the new proposal, student-athletes will be under intense pressure to perform all season long.

The question also arises as to where to hold this tournament. If the top-seeded school gets to host, then teams will naturally wish to be the top-seed. Also, in sports dominated by two schools, such as men’s ice hockey (Middlebury College and Williams), how desperate would a team be to capture the sixth seed instead of the seventh seed?

It is important to recognize that despite Amherst President Tom Gerety’s contention that “in principle the decision is final,” the April 22nd nightmare is not carved in stone. The next step should be for the Presidents of the NESCAC schools to reconvene in light of the opposition that the new proposal has raised. They must recognize that the new system resolves none of the previously existing issues regarding the balance between academics and athletics, and that it unfairly limits teams’ chances for NCAA participation.

To put it as bluntly as we can, the new guidelines make no sense either as a compromise or as a solution to the growing athletic disparity within the NESCAC.

As such, we call on the student bodies of our respective institutions to take the initiative out of the hands of those who have sacrificed our interests in favor of a compromise that advances those of schools hundreds of miles away.

Between us, Amherst and Williams should be setting the tone for competition in the NESCAC, and not just following the lead of other schools.

Benjamin Katz ‘01 is Sports Editor of The Williams Record. Steve Vladeck ‘01 is Sports Editor of The Amherst Student.

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this piece appears in this week’s edition of The Amherst Student