May 23, 2011

28 Problems: It's Time for the NCAA to Expand Player Sideline Access

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

"Look at the Division III philosophy," said Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman. "There's nothing about winning; it's about the participation and complementing the overall experience. It's about how athletics benefits students being well-rounded. With this, we're going totally against that mission statement."

© Kevin P. Tucker

Mike Daly was distracted as he sat in the pre-game meeting prior to Tufts' second-round game with Union. The athletic directors and administrators were talking about all of the minutiae involved with hosting an NCAA Division III men's lacrosse tournament game, but Daly couldn't get the image of Mike Maggiore -- his 5-foot-6, 150-pound freshman fourth-string goalie -- out of his mind.

Like clockwork every day, Maggiore showed up at practice this year and stood defiantly in the cage as the likes of D.J. Hessler, Matt Witko and Kevin McCormick -- the big guns on the Jumbos team -- pelted him off the knees, ankles and chest, along with the occasional groin shot. And every day Maggiore walked off the field with a smile knowing that he had a stake in Tufts' success this year, even though he never saw a minute of game time.

Daly, who led the Jumbos to the national championship last year, couldn't shake the mental image of Maggiore because in that same NCAA pre-game meeting, he learned that once again he had to trim his roster down to the tournament-mandated 28-man limit. Daly knew the smile on Maggiore's face would be replaced with another expression when told he would be relegated to the stands when Tufts played the Dutchmen.

Daly was not sure if he could bear it.

"It really got to the point where I felt that I wanted to designate him to be on our sideline and have myself stand in the stands as a way to fight ridiculousness with ridiculousness," said Daly, referring to the 28-man limit.

"When I was telling the players about the meeting with the athletic directors the day the roster was due and I informed of them of my thought of 'not dressing' and standing in the stands, I literally was so emotional, I was on the verge of crying. I felt that strongly about it. I was prepared to stand in the stands during the Union game and dress another player to avoid making one more challenging, heart-wrenching decision."

Daly's story is one of countless tales of heartbreak and anger that linger in the Division III coaching ranks because of the stipulation that only 38 individuals, including trainers and coaches, are allowed on a team's sideline during an NCAA tournament contest and the presence of a 28-man limit on eligible players. Those teams that don't follow these rules forfeit the game, per the NCAA handbook.

With many Division III teams (certainly the majority of those that qualify for the NCAA tournament) boasting rosters of at least 40 players, it means student-athletes who have committed to their programs are relegated to the role of bystander, joining the rest of the fans in the bleachers.

It is one of the most contentious issues among Division III coaches at their annual convention and in daily conversations with each other.

"The fact that Division III is supposed to be participation-based and supposed to be about the 'experience,' and then they limit the number of people who can be on the sideline, to me, is completely outrageous," said Amherst head coach Jon Thompson. "It is completely contrary to the NCAA and their mission. For the students to work as hard as they work on the field and in the classroom, and then for them to get robbed of the opportunity to me seems wrong. Honestly, it seems immoral."

"All year long, we talk about team and unity, and that everyone has a role. We value that," said Dickinson head coach Dave Webster. "Then to have to make that call is absurd. Go up and sit in the stands."

"I think it's disgraceful that kids work hard all year, and what turns out to be an exciting time and a rewarding time turns out to be a disappointment," said Roanoke coach Bill Pilat. "We've got kids who have worked hard all year, and now they can't dress or stand on the sideline? It's terrible."

"I think it's ridiculous what they are doing to these kids," said Cortland head coach Steve Beville. "They've been working their butts off all year – blood, sweat and tears – sacrificing socially, academically, physically, and then you've got to turn around and tell them that not only they can't play, but they can't be on the sidelines with their teammates? The NCAA is making a big mistake here. It's damaging to the individuals and to the team as a whole when you have to do that."

The damage to the student-athletes has been documented.

Cabrini head coach Steve Colfer had a parent come up to him prior to last year's second-round game at Stevenson and ask if his son was kicked off the team. "The player was so embarrassed about being in the stands, he wouldn't tell his parents why," Colfer said.

© Kevin P. Tucker

RIT head coach Jake Coon, with the backing of his athletic director, sent a letter to the NCAA asking the organization to revisit its policy because of an incident last year. With the Tigers on the road in the second round of the tournament, Coon brought several of his reserves with him as a reward, even if they had to sit in the stands. It turned out to be a miserable experience for one of his players.

"He was being heckled by the fans," Coon said. "I actually think one of our alumni made a stupid comment and he took it to heart. The kid didn't play this year because he was devastated."

Cabrini head coach Steve Colfer had a parent come up to him prior to last year's second-round game at Stevenson and ask if his son was kicked off the team.

"The player was so embarrassed about being in the stands, he wouldn't tell his parents why," Colfer said.

"Look at the Division III philosophy," said Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman. "There's nothing about winning; it's about the participation and complementing the overall experience. It's about how athletics benefits students being well-rounded. With this, we're going totally against that mission statement."

Exacerbating the fury over the 28-man limit are the reasons why it is in place. The NCAA has consistently cited two reasons for the roster cap. Neither holds much water, coaches say. One is bureaucratic boilerplate, and the other is a vestige of a bygone era in Division III.

Money, as always, is the first issue. Considering the number of student-athletes involved, it's a legitimate goal for the NCAA to want to secure the bottom line. If the NCAA wanted to put a cap on the number of student-athletes it would subsidize for a road trip, one would be hard-pressed to find a coach with a complaint, as long as his school had the ability to pick up the tab for the remaining players.

"That's all we ever hear; the reason is cost containment. But leave that up to the individual schools," Webster said. "I think some ADs at some schools are afraid of having to make that call themselves, so they want the NCAA to do it. That number [of ADs] is a minority, and most want to support the athletes' experience."

Said Beville: "Every person I've spoken with at other schools has made it clear they would be willing to pay for the extra players. It's not that."

The other reason often cited by the NCAA is the "intimidation" factor that might come into play if there were two programs with a disparity in the number of rostered players. The intimidation rubric has a dual meaning. The first is the literal translation of intimidation, meaning one team with large numbers standing at midfield menacing a squad with smaller numbers during warm-ups.

"I think that is a dated philosophy," said Stevenson head coach Paul Cantabene. "It wasn't like in the old days when they said, 'Oh, this one team has a lot of people and it's going to intimidate the other team because they don't have as many.' If you look at the NCAA rosters of teams that play, I think they are all similar. I don't think you see one team with 50 players and another team with 22."

"We don't see that," Webster said of the intimidation aspect. "That's some administrator who has never been in a competitive atmosphere making that decision. If one team has more players than the other, so what? It's your team versus their team, so come on."

"If we need to take care of the taunting or intimidation, have the officials come out an hour and 15 minutes before the game to police it," Daly said. "I think if it's about money or if it's about intimidation, then that's an easy fix."

The read-between-the-lines meaning of "intimidation" concerns resources, and an attempt to level the playing field between institutions that have put differing values on their lacrosse programs, whether by choice or by necessity. No doubt having a deeper bench is going to be helpful, but why institute that policy just for the postseason?

"What's the difference between the NCAA tournament and the regular season? It's the same lacrosse game," Berkman said. "We didn't change the rules or anything. During the regular season, do we say, 'It's unfair because one team has 49 players and another team has 43 guys?' We go play Stevenson and they have 74 guys and we have 49. There are still only 10 playing on the field."

The genesis of the 28-player cap for eligible players evolved from a survey taken several years ago that determined that the average roster size among Division III

Tufts' Mike Daly considered coaching the Jumbos' second-round game against Union from the stands in protest of what coaches say is an outdated and unfair policy that allows just 28 players on the sideline for NCAA Division III tournament games.

programs was just over 27 players. Thus, 28 was adopted as the mark. In the face of the mounting requests by coaches, schools and conferences, the NCAA had initially agreed to revisit the issue this year, but opted instead to table the topic and seek more information.

While the coaches would like to see the active tournament roster expanded to at least 38 players (with the schools picking up the tab, if necessary, for the next 10 if they choose to use those spots) in a nod to the evolution and specialization of the game, their main contention is with the sideline restriction.

If he doesn't necessarily agree with the purpose, Amherst's Thompson understands how having a wide discrepancy in roster sizes could be viewed as a competitive advantage.

"What I can't understand is how having players 36 through 40 with no jersey and no helmet, and not being available to play but still being on your sideline, is an advantage," Thompson said. "The actual student-athlete investment has been three hours a day for 180 days, or whatever it is for those schools outside of the NESCAC. I don't see the competitive advantage of having them on their own sideline as opposed to standing on the opposite sidelines with the rest of the fans."

Cortland's Beville said the small roster size impacts the timing of his pre-game warm-ups in the tournament, when he only has seven players per line drill. But in the grand scheme of things, he said, that is inconsequential.

"I can deal with throwing off a little bit of timing in our pre-game," he said. "What I can't deal with is what we have to say to these kids, particularly when it should be the big payoff for them at the beginning of their senior or junior year. They should be experiencing all of the fun and excitement of being part of an NCAA tournament. We have to tell them they can't."

"Endicott was down here [last] Saturday night and they brought the whole enchilada," Berkman said. "They had a bus and a half here because he has 60 kids. He had 30 standing in the stands with their shirt and tie. It's just a horrible thing to do, especially since you've been practicing all season and we're talking about a kid standing on the sideline in his uniform."

"A 28-man playing roster? Fine, so be it," said RIT's Coon. "Travel roster? Fine, so be it. The NCAA only wants to pay for so much? I'm okay with that. What I'm not okay with is sticking my players in the stands to watch the game. I think that's ridiculous. Those guys have worked as hard as anyone else and deserve to be on the sideline."

In many ways, the NCAA is a victim of its own success. Because the Division III tournament is run so well and has such a huge payoff at the end, it has become the foremost goal of every player on every team. "Our Division III championship is the best in any sport," Daly said. "Just to be on that stage and on that weekend is amazing."

To stand on the sidelines, even if it's just with a shirt and no helmet, and bask in the shared experience of playing at the highest level would be a dream fulfilled for most Division III student-athletes.

There would be the ability of the fourth-line middie to give a high five to a third-line teammate after a key ground ball pick-up. The chance for the sixth close defender to stand on the bench and scream words of encouragement to the starter going up against an All-American attackman. An opportunity for Tufts fourth-string goalie Mike Maggiore to run up to tap Patton Watkins on the helmet as he comes off the field for a timeout after another big save.

These experiences require minimal expense and very little hardship for the NCAA, but create an experience remembered for a lifetime. The time has come for the NCAA to at least revoke it's sideline cap, if not completely retool the squad size rule, to ensure that this year's crop of Division III lacrosse players are the last to miss out.

comments powered by Disqus

More Headlines