Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Alma Mater

It doesn't exactly fit into local politics, but in a previous life, I was a collegiate athlete. I attended Berry College and we competed in the something called the NAIA. What is the NAIA? It is a smaller, less bureaucratic version of the NCAA that mainly features small private schools, some Canadian schools, religious schools, etc. At the time, there were programs like Liscomb, Birmingham Southern, Belmont, Kennesaw State, and other reasonably high-profile institutions (note that some of these programs have since gone so far as to have made the NCAA tournament in basketball and have won national championships in other sports).

Today, most of the respected academic schools have fled the NAIA for the NCAA, either Division I, II or III. Division III technically does not allow athletes to accept scholarships just for athletic performance. There are many reasons schools have moved away from the NAIA -- low eligibility requirements, difficulty scheduling NCAA teams, declining prestige, lack of awareness, difficulty recruiting, less competition -- and Berry is now having a debate on campus about making the move.

Predictably, the coaches don't want to change. They like it where they are. Also predictably, the academic side of the institution wants to change so that Berry is affiliated with more "like-minded" institutions (read: better academic schools).

My take: I have been saying for years that Berry needs to leave the NAIA. While I'm not privy to all the considerations that Berry and its board of trustees must consider, this is a pretty clear cut issue for me. The NAIA is a joke to many athletes, coaches, high school students, etc. Lax eligibility requirements and virtually no enforcement allow schools to "buy" athletes who have competed professionally or who are 30+ years old. When I was running, I had to compete against a mercenary program from Life College (a chiropractic school in Marietta) that included a former professional track and field athlete from Germany, a 30+ year old marathoner, an athlete who was kicked out of a Division I program for accepting prize money, and a Kenyan who ran on the European track circuit. It was ridiculous.

So where to from here? Frankly, division III makes the most sense. Now that it has the Cage Center, Berry needs to move quickly to align itself with the institutions with whom it competes for academic and athletic talent and find a way to provide need or merit-based grants to athletes as well. It won't be easy, but it is the right thing to do long term for an institution near and dear to my heart.

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