NESCAC policy harms walk-ons

I never thought that getting tossed into a pool fully-clothed would feel good. But after Williams hosted and won the women’s swimming and diving New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) championships, it felt great. For me and for several other members of the team, being the home team was particularly significant: we could be on deck every day supporting our teammates and helping out even though we were not competing.

Even though we were not competing. While it was wonderful to see our team win, I find this situation – specifically the 24-person cap placed on teams – extremely frustrating and troubling. The frustration is personal, especially with the sense that I could have been fairly competitive in the diving meet. The trouble flows from this, but emanates more directly from the fact that Williams is a NESCAC school and these were the NESCAC championships.

Founded in 1971 with an eye towards academic and athletic excellence, NESCAC says in its mission statement, “Each institution is committed to providing a comprehensive athletic program available to the entire student body. All participants in athletic activities are treated equitably.”

This last sentence could be read in two non-mutually-exclusive ways. First, there should be no distinction between sports within a given NESCAC school; regardless of their sport, all athletes should receive the same treatment by the institution. Second, athletes within a given team should not be treated differently from one another; not only should runners and shot putters both have coaches, but the fast runners should not have their own coach while the slower runners are left to straggle on their own.

In my personal experience, this is something to which Williams adheres – divers and swimmers share a great pool, divers have a diving coach while swimmers have a swimming coach, everyone gets a uniform, everyone gets a locker in the locker room, and everyone swims or dives in every regular season meet.

The postseason is where this rule falls apart. Obviously, only the top people should be going to nationals because that is where the best meet the best and eke it out for top finishes in the country. But if the NESCAC is going to hold its own conference championship then the NESCAC needs to follow the ethos on which the conference is premised.

The NESCAC presidents issued a statement on Oct. 8, 2001, in which they noted their collective concern that “the competitive pressure of intercollegiate athletics…risk[s] distorting the place and purpose of athletic participation in our institutions.” They also reaffirmed and renewed their commitment to a founding principle of the NESCAC in which student-athletes should be representative of the student body. Clearly, then, the NESCAC presidents are asserting a collective vision in which all athletes, regardless of talent, are equally important.

It is, therefore, hypocritical for a conference that prides itself on participation to deny some athletes the possibility to participate in its own championship, an event which should reflect all that is best about the NESCAC – students who seek excellence in and out of the classroom. That the policy penalizes athletes who, for the most part, walk on to teams and will not affect the final outcome of the competition is even more egregious.

Earlier this year, when the NESCAC presidents allowed member schools to accept at-large bids to NCAA tournaments, Athletic Director Harry Sheehy said: “We should be going to national tournaments if there is an educational, experiential value in going” (Record, 9/25/01). If there is “an educational, experiential value” at the national level, then it likely exists at the conference level as well. These are relative terms: excellence for a national champion swimmer might mean winning NESCACs and excellence for a slower swimmer might mean achieving a personal best. But the difference does not mean that one should be valued more than the other.

The current NESCAC policy is not without precedent. Before NESCAC championships existed and member schools participated in New Englands, schools could bring 23 swimmers, and divers counted as one-third of a swimmer. This makes sense because it reflects the reality of championship meets: divers can only contribute points in two individual events, while swimmers can race in three individual events and four relay events. Using this rule would be preferable because it allows schools to bring more athletes, but it is not perfect because it disregards the fundamental emphasis the NESCAC places on participation.

Coming from a Williams student, my concern may sound like whining to other schools. We have won 13 consecutive New England titles and now two consecutive NESCAC titles. We have a larger pool than those at many other colleges, and because of this we do not have to make cuts. Williams has won five Sears Cups and, in general, has an excellent, perhaps unrivaled, Div. III athletic program. However, none of this should matter when designing rules; while “equitable competition” is also put forth in the NESCAC mission statement, the impetus in policy-making should not be to reduce Williams’ chances, but to enhance each and every athlete’s experience.

With an occasional exception, the people left home are not going to score points. But allowing these athletes to participate in the meet will enable them to end their season with the team at a team event. They (we) have put in just as many hours and have worked just as hard as the top athletes. They (we) may not be recognized for their swimming or diving prowess, but still deserve the same opportunities afforded to the high point scorers.

In fairness to the NESCAC, there are certain considerations that would lead to the current policy – primarily the cost involved in sending teams to the meet and the time the meet takes. The former should be incorporated into athletic department budgets; the latter could be a problem, but only if policy-makers do not think creatively.

Currently teams bring 24 people who compete in three individual events, making for 72 total possible individual entries per team. It would be reasonable to give teams 82 individual event entries, with each team allowed to bring an unlimited number of people and individuals still limited to three events. These extra entries would only affect the length of preliminary sessions, but spread over three days should not add too much time. Coaches would no longer have to choose between swimmers and divers based on point-scoring potential and would not need to cut people from the NESCAC team. Furthermore, with divers counting as full people, but only entered in two events, those extra individual entries could be applied to someone else.

This is only one simple alternative to the current system. I am sure that with some brainstorming, others could be devised that would realize the same objective: prizing athletic participation as NESCAC claims to do. If coaches are not willing to take the initiative and uphold the standards of the conference to which they belong, it is time for the athletic directors and college presidents to step in. As NESCAC gets ready to reform recruiting, admissions and resource allocation, they cannot afford to ignore the student-athletes who compete for love of the sport, for themselves and for the team experience.