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Conference Competition

For some reason, the prowess of MIT’s student-athletes is not common knowledge, even in the Boston area. Last September 15, Royer opened the Sunday Boston Globe with high expectations. She and Benedick had chatted openly with a Globe reporter about their hopes that MIT’s intercollegiate sports would start to develop a higher profile in the public eye. The article, however, suggested that to do so, MIT was prepared to take drastic measures. In addition to quoting sports administrators at other universities repeating the phrase “MIT has sports?”, the article implied that to attract and recruit better athletes, MIT was hoping to elevate its varsity sports programs from Division III to Division I, where it’s legal to recruit athletes and provide scholarships. This inaccuracy stirred up a brouhaha on campus. Dean of students Larry Benedict went so far as to write a column in the Tech, the student newspaper, refuting the Globe’s claim.

This was an important point to drive home: MIT is a member of the Division III New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (Newmac), whose member schools share the same values-that athletes participate because they love their sports and not because they are being paid, via scholarships, to play. Indeed, Division III regulations forbid granting scholarships to athletes.

The decision to elevate women’s rowing to Division I status, then, prompted not only students but also some of MIT’s fellow Division III schools to ask what that meant for the future of MIT sports. Would MIT start recruiting high-school athletes and giving them scholarships? Was this a prelude to elevating the whole varsity program to Division I?

The simple answer is no (see “Commitment to Crew,” MIT News, September 2001). The decision to make women’s crew a Division I sport was the result of changes made by the NCAA. Until 2000, rowing was an open-division sport, meaning that all schools with women’s crew teams competed against each other. When the NCAA created federated championships for rowing, MIT’s women’s rowing program had to choose where it wanted to compete. If it chose Division III in accordance with the rest of MIT’s sports teams, it meant adopting practice and competition restrictions that would curtail its ability to compete as a nationally recognized team. Complicating the issue, the men’s crew team continues to compete in an open national division with practice and competition schedules that match the Division I rules for women’s teams. Because Division III schools can elevate up to two sports to Division I status without jeopardizing their standing, Royer decided to move the women’s team to Division I.

The Globe’s September story concluded that because of the decision, MIT could heavily recruit elite high-school rowers. But Royer emphatically points out that Division III rules-which the school’s athletic program adheres to-prohibit giving scholarships to athletes in any sport that is elevated to Division I. Nor will MIT compromise its admissions standards to land top rowers.

Although other MIT teams compete in open national divisions-sailing, skiing, men’s squash, fencing, pistol and rifle, and men’s and women’s gymnastics-the majority of intercollegiate teams compete at the Division III level. Benedick and Royer are very happy about the balance they have found in the Newmac conference. A collection of schools that seem to have little in common besides their geographic proximity-Babson, Clark, Coast Guard, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Springfield, Wellesley, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Wheaton-the conference does embrace MIT’s philosophy that a varsity sports program benefits the students and not the reputation of the school.

Other conference members do leave admissions slots open for athletes, which puts MIT at a slight athletic disadvantage, but it makes the athletes even more determined to win conference titles. This fall they were particularly successful. Sophomore Evan Tindell claimed the Institute’s first national championship in men’s tennis. Junior Ben Schmeckpeper won the regional cross-country championship. Nestle led the men’s soccer team to a 17-3-1 record, the best record in its history, assuring it a bid to the NCAA Tournament. He was also named the conference player of the year and first-team All-American, the first in Institute history. Soccer coach Walter Alessi was named Newmac Coach of the Year for the second time in a row, and Alex Morgan ‘07 was named Newmac soccer rookie of the year. The women’s cross-country team won the conference title, and 30 students earned all-conference honors.

James Kramer, MIT’s young, energetic director of sports information, wants to highlight these accomplishments. To that end, he has revamped the department’s Web site with colorful action shots and sports-score updates. Glossy programs with team stats and rosters are now handed out at football games instead of single-page flyers.

“It’s about advertising,” says Royer. “The students who are already here deserve to have their athletic prowess be a part of what they’re proud of. And we want to help prospective students understand that if they’re coming to MIT for the best possible education they can get, they can also play their sports.”

And for now, those who play at MIT are mostly still playing for love of the game. “Our crowds are family members and friends,” says Deutsch. “We don’t play for a fan base. There are maybe 200, 300 people at the game, but I don’t really care. I don’t play for the crowd. We play for each other.”

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