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Monday, May 17, 2010

Issues Facing College Track, Part 3

It's been a while since I last touched on this subject, as last week was a busy one in track. This series of posts is about the challenges college track faces in the way of catching the attention of fans and the media, without which we matter little more to an athletic department than the fencing team. In part 1 of the series I pointed out how college track's regular season, stretching from late March to early May, has no real meaning and little to catch the interest of track fans. And in part 2 I discussed the importance of emphasizing the team aspect of college track over the individual aspect.

At this point I need to come up with some ideas about how to make those two things happen: emphasize team competition during the regular season. The key is in incentives, although in a meaning slightly different than you might think.

It has been said that economics is the study of incentives. I work in a field--public education--in which all kinds of malarky ideas about incentives are thrown around and implemented without any real understanding of what incentives are or how they work. Incentives aren't external motivators, like pay or the threat of being fired or other such things. They are the goals you wish to attain, your basic motivators for action. In the business world, making money and avoiding being killed off by competitors are the only real goals a corporation has, so in that setting remuneration and job security are the prime motivators for its employees. In that situation, they are incentives, and business people make the mistake of assuming those are everyone's incentives. They aren't in educational institutions, because they're not the goals of the organization or the people who choose to make it their life.

Another thing that schools are subjected to are evaluation systems. In Ohio, the state board of education throws a bunch of numbers into a meat grinder and comes out with an evaluation of each school district in one of five categories. Very often, the schools that rate well aren't any better or worse than the others, but are much more adept at figuring out how to make their numbers look good. This is predicted by Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor".

In college track & field, we evaluate teams according to a number of systems, but the foremost is the national championships. A team with a single great athlete can look really good this way, making a top-25 finish at the NCAA Championships, when his team as a whole isn't very good at all. No wonder that it's relatively common for teams to concentrate on one area and abandon much of the rest. Kansas State may have finished 11th in the Big 12, but if Erik Kynard wins the high jump at the NCAA championships, the Wildcats will probably be a top-25 team. A one-man team is not interesting to watch, though.

Those teams who aspire to compete for the national championships spend the regular season trying their darndest to get as many athletes to qualify to the NCAA championships as possible. Splitting squads happens with regularity. Putting all their athletes out to win a regular-season team competition is actually penalized rather than rewarded. But this is not interesting to watch.

Our incentive system, our reasons for the existence of college track, is to blame for this. It's no one's fault; little by little we decided that ranking at nationals is more important than placing well at the conference meet, which is in turn more important than compiling a winning dual-meet record. And that's not going to change. So what we must do, in order to make college track interesting and watchable and attention-worthy, is to radically change how we rank teams at the national championships.

My proposal would be this: Eight teams get selected to compete for the NCAA team championship. Those eight teams automatically get two entries per event (and one for relays). The remainder of the fields for each event would be another sixteen athletes not on those teams, and who would not count in the team scoring. There would be eight teams battling it out for the championship, and everyone else would be competing for the glory of their university, but not for its place in the standings.

In many instances, athletes from the team competition would make the finals of their event. An example would be Jeff Demps in the 100 meters for the Florida Gators. They would not only be competing for team points but for an individual honors and All-American status. Such finalists would take the top spots in the team scoring, and a B-final made up of the top semi-finalists (and quarter-finalists, if need be) from the eight teams competing for the title would round out the scoring for each event.

Five of the eight teams would be the champions of the SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC. The other three would be at-large selections based on the results of regular-season scored meets. You'd have to schedule scored meets against good teams and beat them if you wanted to get an at-large bid--and since no one knows ahead of time that they're going to win a conference title, everyone with nationals aspirations would then have to make tough scored meets a priority.

The emphasis would no longer rest on getting individuals to the national championships, but the team as a whole. In fact, by getting the team to the nationals, then a spot for each individual would be secured. This system would radically change the raison d'etre for college track, from a collection of individuals to an actual team.

I'm only suggesting this for the outdoor championships, not the indoor ones. The indoor season is too short, and anyway there's some fun in variety. Two different ways of determining a national champion would, I think, make track more interesting. A coach of a top program would have to consciously choose which title he was going to go after.

I don't have any illusions that my idea would ever come to pass. But it sure would change the incentives.


Jay T. said...

I think what you suggest is similar to the format for NCAA Gymnastics championships.

I like your ideas for this. I attend University of Oregon track meets and prefer the ones with team scores.

Have you written about the effects of scholarship limits on trying to assemble a complete team? The limits for D1 track are quite stringent: 12 full grants in aid for men, I believe. About 20 for women. Those full scholarships can be split to provide partial aid for more athletes.

Currently a college that tries to assemble a full team to compete in dual meets is frequently outbid for star athletes by the colleges that concentrate on one area of the sport (sprints or throws for example) and wish to give full scholarships to a few.

To reward success in scoring meets and require winning the national championship through a full team effort in many events would put great stress on those scholarship limits. That would not be all bad.

I'm probably off on my numbers or my perception of the scholarship limit issue. Feel free to set the record straight.

The Track & Field Superfan said...

Men get 12.6 scholarships, if memory serves me. Women are at something like 16 or 18.

Remember, this isn't going to happen. So don't get too tied up in the details. This would only change what is rewarded; no team would have to execute it perfectly, they'd just have to do it better than anyone else.

The biggest change is that there would be a lot of scored matchups between the best teams in the country, and they'd mean something. Oregon and Nebraska would have more or less guaranteed themselves a spot at the NCAA by winning the Pepsi Challenge and the Jim Click Shootout. These kinds of meets would no longer be the exception, they'd be the norm.

Imagine if the Jesse Owens Classic was scored, and Ohio State got some top teams from the SEC and/or Big 12 to show up. The pre-meet headlines would call it a must-win situation for the Buckeyes. The attendance and media attention would be tremendous.

Joshua said...

I believe that yes we need to but more emphasis on the team aspect but this idea is just complicating things, the format now is set to bring out the best all to earn a spot in the NCAA final and the dog it out for the title and that is the way it should stay.
FYI: Kansas state has more than just a HJ that can score at that meet.