At a faculty meeting last week, Knox College made one step toward significant athletic investment. By a vote of 39-13, the college petitioned to allow for the Prairie Fire to play a maxed out schedule and compete in the maximum number of games afforded by NCAA caps.
The move was precipitated by a conversation within the Midwest Conference, in which lawyers with knowledge on the subject advised all 11 institutions within the conference that their scheduling practices could be seen as in non-compliance with Title IX. The MWC for the most part plays 90 percent of its allowable schedule, and is gender-blind when scheduling. According to Athletic Director Chad Eisele, the only sports that play to their full scheduling capacity are football, men’s tennis and women’s tennis, though they do not play their one allowed scrimmage. The rest of the teams on campus play between 89 and 91 percent of their allowed games. Based on the fact that football is an all-male sport, this difference creates some animosity in whether the athletics departments in the MWC are discriminating based on gender. As such, Knox made the decision to allow all its athletics teams to play at their full caps.
This decision, however, is conditional. All MWC schools must cast similar votes by May 1, at which point the MWC will make a conference-wide decision. Should the decision be approved, the new MWC caps will not be implemented until fall of 2017, as fall 2016 schedules have already been set. Further, should the vote garner conference-wide approval, the decision does not mandate that all teams must play the maximum number of games; rather, it gives them the option to, should they choose. According to Eisele, many elite DIII institutions choose not to participate in the maximum number of contests they’re allowed; to do so would put physical strain on their athletes, and could academically trouble their student athletes as well.
“It’s not always in students’ best interests to max out their schedule,” said Eisele. “So if this passes, we’ll be letting the coaches and teams have autonomy. É We’re worried about missed class time, about missed opportunities outside of the classroom. We don’t want to cause any discomfort with our scheduling.”
Indeed, both Eisele and Professor of Chemistry Larry Welch, the head of the faculty athletics committee, indicated that missed class time would be one of the biggest challenges the teams will have to address. According to Welch, the school has a policy by which athletes are not allowed to miss more than 10 percent of any given class. This policy limits the number of contests teams can schedule on Tuesday/Thursday as well as Monday/Wednesday/Friday blocks, and may force coaches to get creative in their scheduling.
“Coaches are going to have to be cognizant about locality and timeliness of games,” said Welch. “The juiciest times are during breaks, though spring sports will be trickiest with the shortness of spring break and the fact that many schools finish in mid to late May.”
Welch further noted that all contests added would be non-conference, and that in the case of fall and winter sports, there is ample time when other schools are in session while Knox is not, such as summer and winter break, respectively. But overall, Welch maintains, most coaches are happy to have more games and are eager to have further opportunities to enhance competitiveness.
Head women’s soccer coach Paul Lawrence is one such coach.
“I view these extra games as an opportunity,” Lawrence said. “An opportunity to give more playing time to those who would have been restricted to minimum games.”
Lawrence noted that the opportunity is especially positive for them, given their roster size: Of the 29 freshmen who signed on last season, 25 are staying into their sophomore year, and that is in addition to seven guaranteed recruits for next season, with more still suspected to commit. As such, the team will be playing a more rotational style, allowing players to go their hardest while they’re in, knowing they have a strong bench behind them. The deep bench and extra games should provide growth opportunities for young players as well as days off for players with minor injuries. While Lawrence acknowledges the extra games will also produce an extra workload, he’s confident in the ability of his players and his system to keep the girls academically thriving.
“As soon as I heard [about the potential for extra games], I asked the girls what it would mean for them,” said Lawrence. “And all I heard was massive support. A lot of these girls are used to playing every other night year round, so adding in a couple extra games in the fall fosters excitement. These girls are academically strong enough to handle it.”
Lawrence credits the strong connection he and his athletes make, starting in the recruitment process, with an ability to maintain academic eligibility.
For the others, the change would make little difference to their schedule. Such is the case for volleyball, a sport where playing multiple games a day in a tournament is the norm. Head volleyball coach Ashley McDonough felt that although an increase in matches wouldn’t hinder her team, it also wouldn’t be as beneficial.
“I think if we were a contact sport, or we weren’t used to being tournament athletes, who at a high school club tournament can easily play 10-12 matches in a weekend, it would matter more.”
McDonough has not decided, if given the opportunity, whether she would schedule extra games to fill the maximum quota for the season, saying it is more dependent on scheduling and budget.
“In terms of preparation, I don’t think one or two more matches would ‘beef up’ anything. As much as kids need to train and prepare we also need to provide adequate rest and healing time,” she said.
Volleyball, a team with a significantly smaller bench than women’s soccer, may opt to stay at 89 to 91 percent of their game capacity, a decision made in the best interest of the team, careful not to spread themselves too thin. Coaches will not have to make definitive decisions until the outcome of the May 1 MWC vote.