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Is Reclassification Unfair to Student-Athletes?

Generally when a program reclassifies to another division or joins the NCAA from another association, it is a happy day for the university. With rare exceptions, these are moves up. Even the last few years of realignment brought more schools up despite the threat of superconferences leaving everyone behind. Moves by the biggest conferences trickled down until schools like Grand Canyon University were moving into Division I and Charlotte, which had no football team, was on the march to FBS.

But Matt Popovich, a student-journalist at Northern Kentucky University raises good questions about the NCAA’s reclassification rules. After a period of schools rapidly joining the NCAA and ascending the divisional ladder, often with rules violations and student-athlete welfare issues as a result, the NCAA put a moratorium on membership changes. In 2011, that moratorium was lifted, with new membership requirements. Potential DI members now had to:

  • Be a member of DII for at least five years;
  • Be in compliance with all DI sport sponsorship and financial aid minimums; and
  • Have an offer to join a Division I conference.

On top of that, the school has to pay an application fee equal to estimated Division I revenue distributions, likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and develop strategic plans for ramping up to Division I levels.

After that application, the school then spends four years navigating the Division I reclassification process. It is this four year process that NKU is questioning. During this time, the school’s teams are not eligible for any NCAA championships. They have left Division II but are not yet active Division I members. Athletes who join a reclassifying institution for the first year may never be on a team eligible for an NCAA championship.

That four year period tripped up Presbyterian College’s men’s basketball team in 2010. Three players redshirted before their senior year, which should have been Presbyterian’s first year as an active Division I member eligible for the NCAA Tournament. But advancing through the reclassification process is not a guarantee, and Presbyterian’s application was denied at the final step.

There are similar stories with schools joining the NCAA from other organizations. Cal State San Marcos has had their bid to join the NCAA denied repeatedly, the last time because of a violation of an NAIA transfer rule. When Simon Fraser University joined the NCAA from Canadian Interuniversity Sport on an accelerated timeline, many athletes finished their careers earlier than expected. CIS allows for five seasons of competition, while the NCAA permits only four.

Atlantic Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart mentioned the possibility of allowing teams to be eligible for championships and/or shortening the reclassification to two years. Both would be improvements but would bring back the question of making sure teams are not jumping up to Division I unprepared.

One idea would be to require a form of promotion. Schools might need to be in the top 20 of the Division II Director’s Cup before they could request reclassification. This way there is at least some evidence the school has a strong Division II athletic department before it jumps in and immediately starts competing for Division I championships.

Another idea is to continue to delay the money and require significant initial investment. Division I could require all programs to be fully funded for scholarships if a school wants to reclassify and prohibit the cutting of sports in the first few years at least. The goal would be to ensure that new members are fully committed to providing the Division I experience, rather than struggling along and collecting revenue distribution checks.

And for athletes specifically, reclassification should be a choice. If a school reclassifies, athletes should be granted their release and be allowed to transfer and play immediately. If Division II’s motto is “I chose Division II”, the NCAA rules should respect that choice and not assume that athletes want to be dragged up to Division I.

Baldwin Wallace University Athletic Recruiting.

Barry University Athletic Recruiting.


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