The NCAA is Killing Rowing

Sports have such an enormous impact on our society that what happens in sports is often reflected in business and our broader culture. And often, when sports becomes a business, what happens in business is reflected in sports.

The NCAA is a business, a big business, and big businesses often acquire smaller companies and products that they hope will provide growth for the larger entity. Sometimes those acquisitions end well, other times they result in the suffocation of whatever life the smaller company had. The NCAA’s “acquisition” of women’s heavyweight rowing is leading to the suffocation of the sport.

Purely by the numbers, the growth of women’s heavyweight rowing in recent years has been phenomenal. Since athletic directors realized the sport could act as a Title IX offset for large male sports such as football, they began turning previous club programs varsity and starting brand new varsity programs where clubs didn’t exist. All of these varsity programs, however, needed women to fill out their ranks, so high school girls who never took a stroke with an oar found themselves receiving scholarships. The gold rush was on and heavyweight women’s rowing became the sport of choice for families looking for scholarships and admissions preference. Although this growth resulted in too few qualified coaches and women claiming to be varsity athletes who had no business pulling on a uni, it got lots of women on teams. And it was NCAA recognition, giving the sport instant credibility as a Title IX offset, that enabled it.

Once women’s heavyweight rowing became an NCAA sport, that category was required to have its own, separate, championship. Previously all four categories of rowing (men, women, heavyweight, and lightweight) joined together in a national championship that was a true festival of the sport. Men and women competing at the same event in equal numbers, celebrating one of the few truly amateur sports left. The NCAA tore that apart. Heavyweight women have their championship, while on another date in another part of the country the heavy men, light men, and light women, together have their own.

Even more pernicious, however, is the fact that the NCAA made rowing a team sport. This meant that the NCAA women’s heavyweight champion was determined by points awarded for finishes in the first varsity eight race, the second varsity eight race, and the third varsity four race. Here’s the thing though – no one other than the competitors and their families gives a damn about anything but the first varsity eight. It’s like deciding the national football champion by who wins the first string game, the second string game, and the scout team game. We’ve many times had “national champions” who didn’t win the first varsity eight race. Absurd.

Furthermore, this team sport designation is already strangling lightweight women’s rowing. Heavyweight coaches fight against the existence of lightweight programs in their boathouses because they need those women to fill out 2V and 3V four boats. Women who could be national champions as lightweights are relegated to 2V eights because the NCAA says rowing is a team sport.

Now we have word that the Division I Rowing Committee recommended “eliminating awards for individual boats at the championships. If the Championships/Sport Management Cabinet accepts the recommendation, only the top four teams overall will be recognized, unlike in previous years when the overall team champion was honored in addition to individual champions in the I Eights, II Eights and Fours.” Yes, that’s right, the winners of the race, the varsity eight, will not get an award. Who are these people? This is not rowing, this is NCAA bullshit. And to think there are coaches, led by Stanford’s Craig Amerkhanian, who want men’s heavyweight rowing to be an NCAA sport too! These coaches claim to be “forward thinking.” Forward thinking is no varsity eight medal? Ridiculous. Why don’t we just use motors instead of our bodies – that’s forward thinking isn’t it? Know too, that the heavyweight men as an NCAA sport would kill all lightweight rowing. At some point it becomes another sport, and the NCAA is getting us closer every day. Turns out, if you didn’t know already, that the NCAA is just another big business taking over a smaller organization with a vibrant, growing product, and strangling the life out of it. It doesn’t understand the product but “knows” the right way to do things is the NCAA way. But it’s not. Rowing is about individual boat-to-boat battles down the course. It’s about looking across the lanes at the finish and knowing that you just won or lost, not about wondering how your finish figures into the team points total.

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