Last year, Nick Stanitz-Harper of Colorado State University paid 3,000 dollars to play lacrosse. This sum covered the coach's salary and most of the equipment and travel costs. His perks for spending such a sum, and representing his school on a national level, were limited to lacrosse team-related endeavors. Field time was not guaranteed nor was assistance from the schools athletic department. School trainers were off limits, as was access to less crowded weight rooms. Priority class scheduling was not an option, and given the demands of daily practice and games made keeping up with academic commitments rather difficult. Assistance in such areas would come of his accord though, as tutors allocated by the athletic department were not available. Administrative duties for the team, from travel planning to eligibility checks, were handled mostly by the players, though the coaches helped as much they could.
Despite such obstacles placed before them he and his teammates persevered, and persevered well. They finished their regular season without a blemish, traveling all over the country, beating the top-rated club teams in the land in addition to DIII Colorado College. Narrowly losing to BYU in the finals of the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference Championship, the Rams expected to be the second seed in the national championship tourney. A culmination of their incredible amount of hard work and money expended throughout the year. Unfortunately for Nick and the Rams, National Championship winners in 1999, 2001 and 2003, two of his teammates inadvertently dropped below the 12 unit academic threshold in the middle of the season. As a result, instead of the two seed they were awarded in the initial seedings, the national governing body deemed them ineligible to compete for the national title.
Colorado State is a member of the US Lacrosse Men's Division Intercollegiate Associates (USL MDIA, or MDIA for short). Club ball, but not really. Borrowing rules and standards from the NCAA, the MDIA is the governing organization of over 200 collegiate club lacrosse teams across the country. These are colleges with big time names; Michigan, Cal, BYU, Tennessee and Florida State, but no tradition of varsity lacrosse. Partially responsible for the explosion of growth in non-traditional areas, the 10 year old MDIA has provided a high organizational level for club lacrosse teams around the country to strive for, and raised the playing level throughout these lacrosse hinterlands.
Glance through a top 25 football or basketball poll and you'll see schools with predominately MDIA club lacrosse teams. However, despite the competitive spirit, level playing field, and organizational backbone that the MDIA provides it cannot and does not function in the full capacity as the NCAA. And how could it? The MDIA's entire board of directors volunteers their time, money and energy, and handles all of the promise and problems facing the myriad club programs around the country. Additionally, most of the 16 board members are coaches for MDIA club programs, further limiting their time and energy. As such, all compliance and regulatory affairs are kept in as much black and white as possible. Without the resources to look into each individual case it is a necessary step to ensure compliance. Thus, when transgressions are detected the punishments are relatively black and white as well, regardless of the offender.
John Paul is head coach of the University of Michigan Lacrosse team, as well as the president of the MDIA. He is dedicated to the growth and well being of lacrosse, whether it is under the winged helmets of Maize and Gold or White domes of Bevo and friends in Austin, Texas. During his 10 years of involvement with the MDIA, John Paul, has seen it grow from a gathering of 70 or so clubs to a verifiable two tiered league of over 200 teams. Such substantial growth has produced the usual obstacles, some ordinary, but many unique to the phenomenon of club lacrosse. When overseeing a league of volunteers, where players are paying out of pocket to participate with no discernable help from their respective universities, an iron clad and inflexible set of rules and by laws governing teams participation would seem to be unreasonable, or downright mean. Yet in many ways, according to Coach Paul, it is the most necessary and vital ingredient to the MDIA's claim for legitimacy.
"Our rules and regulations are the backbone of our organization," said Coach Paul on a mid-October afternoon. "To maintain our credibility as a viable league we have to maintain strict eligibility standards, ensuring that the guys playing are actual students of their respective universities, and not some guy wearing the school jersey." In doing so, the league becomes a de facto NCAA for the 200 plus schools participating under the MDIA banner. Paul, however, disagrees at such comparisons: "We are not trying to be the NCAA, nor could we ever aspire to be. It is stated clearly in our mission that we are not trying to create NCAA lacrosse teams. However, we do adopt many of the rules, both on and off the field, from the NCAA handbook." If such a statement seems slightly confusing, or counterintuitive, it is not to meant to be. As Paul explained later, the MDIA uses the NCAA rules on the field, and an abridged version of their guidelines off the field.
The "administrative" rules are abridged because the enforcement of all of the NCAA by laws by an all volunteer board would be deemed both immensely time consuming and overblown given the resources at hand. To administer regulations and rules, and because of the extremely limited resources most teams in the league are facing, all compliance issues are kept to a relatively strict and simple minimum. Stringency for the sake of simplicity, especially regarding eligibility.
"We have gotten our eligibility check down to a simple process that everyone can follow," said Paul. Team representatives, whether they're players, coaches or associated personnel, fill out an online form listing the amount of credits each player is enrolled in, submit it to the school's registrar for verification, and then send it to the MDIA. This process is completed three times, once at the beginning of the season to ensure eligibility, once in the middle of the season, and finally at the end of the season before the national tournament to ensure that all players on national tournament teams are eligible. Since all of the members on the board are intrinsically involved with the league itself, they do understand the tremendous hardships that the players and coaches face. Realizing that not all schools will be as compliant as others in handling this eligibility check, the board does as much as possible to accommodate the teams "We are more lenient than the NCAA," said Paul. "We (the board) know what everyone goes through, because we have to do it ourselves. So should a school registrar refuse to comply with the forms we have created, we will work out a solution."
On paper this procedure seems very simple. In order for a team to maintain eligibility, all of its players must maintain 12 units throughout the season and be a true student athlete. Rarely, however, does life imitate rigid guidelines. Often at large universities students will have to wait list, badger and cajole their way into the required classes for their major. When impacted, and offered at limited hours, these classes become increasingly difficult to register for, especially when trying to meet the demands of your lacrosse team without assistance. Conditions such as these are common, rendering eligibility verification to be less than black and white. This gray area, where extenuating circumstances clutter the good intentions of dedicated young men, is where MDIA faces one of its biggest challenges.
The board recognizes this, and understands the demands that are facing the MDIA athletes, yet remains unapologetic. In many ways, they can't. "Like I said before, we can't be the NCAA, and we don't want to be", continued Paul, "Our resources are limited, so we have created a form that everybody can comply with." In doing so it does establish the level playing field that is desired. A fact that Paul counts as paramount. "We (the MDIA) serve the programs at hand- providing a sustainable structure for the clubs around the country to strive for. Our ultimate priority is to provide a credible national championship tournament and crown a national champion. That is what we do in essence." When faced with teams that may have crossed the eligibility line, there is always an extenuating circumstance but unfortunately the rules do not always account for them. The board tries to factor in hardships or accidental mistakes made by college kids, but after all the debating the fact remains in order to maintain the leagues integrity a degree of firmness is necessary. Thus, when a team is found to have broken a rule there is limited gray area to meander in.
In previous years the eligibility issue has risen up and taken down or scared national tournament bound teams. In 2004 likely number nine seed Oakland University was disqualified, while 2004 National Champion UCSB had such a severe scare that legal advisors were necessary to sort out the situation. UCSB Coach Mike Allan saw firsthand the effects of the eligibility issue, and the repercussions for any potential transgression. "I believe the league needs to deal with eligibility for the sake of legitimacy", said Coach Allan from his Santa Barbara based home office. "As teams progress with the MDIA handling eligibility on a national scale, these checks should go much more smoothly in the future. It is very important that we have good communication between the MDIA, the (regional) conferences and the individual teams regarding these various issues so as to avoid any team being disqualified." Yet last spring, one of the marquee MDIA clubs, and tourney favorites, was guilty of the transgressions, and was unable to attend. If anything it served as eye-opening for teams around the country, said Allan. "Hopefully the issues that have come about in the past, most notably CSU, will serve as an example to other teams and of the severity of the eligibility issue,"
Regardless of rules, regulations, and compliance efforts that take place, eligibility issues will remain a difficult issue for the board to deal with. Yet it still has to remain as objective as possible. "CSU didn't follow the rules," said Paul, "the same rules that everybody else has. And as much as it hurt to hold them out (of the tournament) we had to."
Not surprisingly Flip Naumburg, head coach of Colorado State University, as well as a founder of Rock-it Pocket and the Vail Shootout, doesn't see the same black and white issue as the MDIA board of directors. "Look, all of these kids are literally given nothing," said Naumburg from his Fort Collins, Colorado based Rock it Pocket offices. "And not just us, but practically every team in MDIA. In some circumstances we exist despite the efforts within the university administration. So to be tossed from the tournament really burns." Though his emotional appeals are valid, the fact remained that two players on CSU fell below the league mandated twelve unit threshold- a fact that Flip does not deny. "One of the kids was kept off the roster as he was a freshman, and wasn't able to get it. The other kid, a four year starter for us, got dropped from an engineering course because he didn't have the pre-req for the class. It's not like this kid was taking basket weaving, he's a smart kid." Intelligent or not, when the student was dropped from the class he should have re-enrolled in another. Again, Flip agrees "but as you and everybody else know, getting a class is not always so easy. When we found out he was dropped from the class we appealed to the professor to let him in, which he did. But he would have failed the class…. I preach to the kid's twelve units, twelve units, every day but things like this do seem to pop up."
When pressed on what the MDIA should have done with their situation, and with inevitable situations like this in the future, Flip is slightly less charged but equally compassionate. "I know it's a volunteer organization, but these guys need to look into each case individually, and not give a blanket ruling for all of these transgressions. It's not as if we have people going to classes for kids, or we're trying to skirt the eligibility issue. This kid dropped a class, got back in, and we reported it. If anything I expected a little leniency." In addition to the obvious disappointment to the players on the team, there was a monetary issue involved as well as all travel arrangements, hotels and rental vehicles were cancelled at the eleventh hour. Many parents, reeling from the decision, became angry at Flip for his refusal to push harder for a lesser penalty. He, however, knew that there would be no negotiating. Five months later, Flip still questions the judgment passed before the program. "The punishment here didn't fit the crime in my eyes. It hurt the kids, it hurt me, and I know they're trying to keep a credible thing going but how does us not going to the tourney make the league any better?"
Ironically, an answer to that question is one that not too many people on either side would like. Such is the seemingly perfect paradox the league has to deal with. Created to expand the competitive opportunities of collegiate lacrosse players, its incredible growth has also come with the inevitable denying teams a chance to play in the championship tournament. Unfortunate and slightly impassionate? Possibly, but a necessary evil nonetheless. According to the board, collegiate clubs have plenty of outlets to schedule whomever they want, and abide whatever rules they deem fit. To play in the MDIA however, requires a certain organizational commitment beyond the usual, and as such must deal with the consequences should there be an infraction. Though harsh, regulatory enforcement is vital to the MDIA according to Coach Paul. "It has to have teeth. If not, it's just a club league."
Photos from team web sites or by E-Lax staff and Dave Gottenborg
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