On Monday, January 11, the NCAA approved a policy that will significantly change the way teams are chosen for the national tournaments. Under the new rules, the number of at-large bids will be severely decreased and conference champions will be automatically be given berths in the tournament.
The NCAA policy change has cast into new light last year’s decision by the NESCAC presidents to allow only the conference champion to participate in NCAA post-season play, rather than the unlimited number (usually two to five) previously permitted. While the decreased availability of at-large bids means the NESCAC decision will affect fewer teams, the remaining at-large bids would still be off limits for NESCAC teams who might be able to secure them.
President of the College Harry C. Payne feels that the new NCAA policy “make[s] [the NESCAC presidents’] previous decision very wise” because NESCAC now has a means of choosing a champion to take its automatic berth in the tournament.
“The NESCAC championships are a very good thing under this new scenario, guaranteeing us a spot,” Payne said. “[The NCAA’s] limitation of most invitations to NCAA tournaments to champions will bring their policies close to synch with NESCAC’s.”
Athletic Director Bob Peck, on the other hand, feels that the NESCAC presidents should defer to the NCAA policy and not add additional NESCAC restrictions. “What we would like … is not to get ahead of the NCAA,” he said. “We would like very much for the presidents to look at [the NCAA] rule and say, now that the NCAA is restricting, why don’t we just go with the rule not of the presidents but of the NCAA?”
In light of the new NCAA policy, the teams most impacted by last year’s NESCAC policy change will be those lucky enough to secure an at-large bid under the new, more restrictive system who will be prohibited from attending the tournament. Lisa Melendy, Assistant Professor of Physical Education and Williams representative at the NCAA meeting, noted that the decreased availability of at-large bids “mutes the necessity for the NESCAC decision. But in the year you can get a second team in, why not just let them go?”
Bert Leatherman ’00, secretary of College Council, agreed. “An at-large bid is rare [under the new policy], so it seems even more ridiculous not to let a team that secures a bid to attend.” He added that College Council will not lessen its efforts to reverse last year’s NESCAC decision because of the NCAA policy change. “We are resolved to keep pushing,” he said.
The NESCAC and NCAA changes have, however, had one effect at Williams that has been universally popular. At a recent faculty meeting, the College lifted its long-standing prohibition on post-season play participation during examinations period.
The proposal, presented to the faculty by the Committee on Educational Policy, would allow athletic teams invited to nationals to attend regardless of conflicts with exams, as long as the individual athletes could work out an acceptable arrangement with their professors.
“I think the rationale is simply that opportunities will be few,” Payne explained, “and so to deny that opportunity now would be overly restrictive.”
Despite the contentious nature of this issue in the past, the proposal passed with relatively little discussion and virtually no opposition. Michael Brown, Chair of the Anthropology/Sociology Department and Chair of the Committee on Educational Policy, noted, “There is an ongoing faculty concern about whether we have the right balance between athletics and academics, but this didn’t seem to be a concern in that respect.”
Melendy added that because of the new NESCAC and NCAA policy, the number of teams likely to attend post-season play during exams will be far smaller than in the past. “That was a big selling point with the faculty,” she said.
The new policy regarding play during exams has been very well received by students, especially spring athletes who have been affected by the previous policy in past years. Two years ago, the women’s lacrosse team was not allowed to participate in a NCAA tournament in which they were expected to have done very well, and last year the baseball team was kept from participating in nationals.
Matt Sigrist ’99, captain of the baseball team, explained, “We were under the understanding before the season started that we would be able to go if our record was good enough. But then [the College] came out saying we wouldn’t be able to…. It was very disappointing.”
Sigrist thinks the change in exams policy is “great news…. It gives you motivation to play the whole season, a little something to work towards.”
The athletic department was also pleased to see the exam policy changed. Nonetheless, it insists that the real issue is still the NESCAC policy itself. “[The decision regarding exams] is not such a big deal because it only affects spring teams, and only some spring teams,” Peck said. “The department is much more interested… in open enrollment,” or unrestricted ability to accept at-large as well as conference champions NCAA berths.
Besides affecting Williams in particular, the NCAA policy change will change the entire flavor of the national tournament. The invitations to each sport’s tournament will be distributed to three pools of teams, A, B, and C. Pool A consists of all the conference champions; as an example, pool A berths will represent 30 out of the 40 total spots in the soccer championship tournament. Pool B (8 out of the 40 berths) consists of independent schools that don’t belong to conferences. Williams and the other NESCAC schools currently fall into this category because there exists no means of choosing a conference champion until the new NESCAC decision comes into effect in 2001-2. Pool C contains the at-large bids for second and third place finishers in automatic qualifying conferences. In the soccer tournament, Pool C represents only 2 out of 40 berths.
Because of this system, the types of teams attending the national tournaments will be significantly different than in past years. “You might say that the NCAA Division III Championships will become much more ‘democratic’ in terms of conferences represented,” Payne explained, “but far less ‘meritocratic’ in terms of eligibility.”
Melendy agreed. “In general,” she said, “you are going to leave behind some of the best teams in the country.” A disproportionate number of these teams would probably be in NESCAC, she added, because it is such a strong conference.
Melendy also explained that this problem may lead the NCAA to reconsider the size of the tournaments in future years. One way to increase the access of teams in traditionally weaker conferences, as well as allow participation of multiple teams in strong conferences, would simply be to expand the total number of berths. Although such a change is not likely in the near future, if pursued it could again increase the impact of the NESCAC presidents’ decision prohibiting at-large bids within the conference.