On Feb. 3, the NCAA canceled 2021 championships for Division III winter sports. Affected sports include men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s indoor track and field, men’s and women’s ice hockey and wrestling.
As a Division III athlete myself, my initial reaction was disappointment. Though in the midst of that, a sense of understanding lingered. As COVID-19 rages on, protecting athletes’ health is more important than protecting competition in any single season. Besides, I’ve now gone through three rounds of sports being canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so it didn’t exactly come as a surprise to me.
What did come as a surprise, however, was the reasoning behind the cancelation. Though I initially believed the cancelation was a logical response to a steady continuation of COVID-19 cases, I came to find that was not the case. The reasoning behind the decision to cancel championships for winter sports, limited to Division III, was actually due to what the NCAA calls “low participation numbers.”
After reading this, I found my primary reaction to the news to be nothing but fleeting. A cancelation due to the ongoing illness and devastation caused by the pandemic would have been completely understandable. But taking national championships away from athletes who could have very well competed is another thing entirely.
According to the NCAA Championships Committee, the established threshold for participation in order to hold a championship is 60%, with the exception of men’s and women’s ice hockey and wrestling, which have a threshold of 70% participation.
So far in 2021, none of the aforementioned winter sports have met the required threshold of participation. Across the nation, women’s Division III sports currently average 49.3% participation while men’s sports sit at an average of 50.7%.
If participation was at a shockingly low level, the decision to not hold a national championship would be understandable. If there aren’t enough athletes to compete, the national championship does not do its intended purpose of declaring who rightfully deserves a national title. Thus, participation would be an accurate measure in a normal year.
But this isn’t a normal year. And being 10 to 20% off of the participation threshold isn’t necessarily shockingly low, either.
Winter athletes were robbed, quite suddenly, of a national championship last year as the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly swept the nation. Qualifying individuals and teams alike were preparing to make their trips to the destination of their respective championships when news of the cancelation struck them and altered the fate of their seasons.
Following this came the cancelation of spring sports seasons, then fall. And just when Division III athletes are returning to competition in their sports, the ultimate competition has been taken away from each and every one of them, not due to the pandemic but rather due to a rule that the NCAA made for a time outside these extraordinary circumstances.
While the three previous national championships were lost for valid reasons, this one was not.
For seniors especially, this loss of a fourth potential national title is devastating, especially when the fact remains that competition was possible. Protecting our safety is not prohibiting us from playing. We have found a way to maintain both safety and competition, as is shown by how Division I and Division II athletes are continuing on with the conclusion to their seasons as originally planned.
Have athletes not missed out on enough competition? Division III athletes do not earn scholarship money, and therefore compete solely out of the joy and passion they have for the sports they play.
Fayneese Miller, chair of the Presidents Council and president at Hamline, was quoted in the NCAA announcement of the championship cancelation.
“We are committed to ensuring that our student-athletes have the best possible experience, and, for us, this means having a meaningful number of competitions,” said Miller. “We hope this is possible for our spring championship.”
Teams across the nation who are competing are trying their best to include a meaningful number of competitions throughout their respective seasons, but there is not much that they can do when they are told that the most meaningful of competitions cannot be held.
One of the biggest reasons athletes are not competing right now is not due to a lack of passion for their sports, but rather due to a plethora of passion for themselves as individuals. Athletes, just as any other person, fear infection of COVID-19. And, knowing that competitions could potentially act as superspreaders, many have opted out of playing this season.
The athletes who are playing should not have to be punished for the decisions of some of their competitors to take care of themselves. No one, quite frankly, should be punished for that decision. Yet the NCAA is holding athletes across the boards accountable for what should be a commendable action made by some.
By canceling 2021 winter sports championships, the NCAA is saying that since some Division III athletes don’t feel comfortable potentially risking their health for the sake of their sports, Division III athletes don’t deserve to compete at the national level at all.
In the end, even without a competition, no one wins.