Why Collegiate Triathlon Should Not Be NCAA

I think this was from Collegiate Nationals in Reno, where we stayed at a casino hotel and the swim got cancelled and I got altitude sick. Why would you want to change that??
I think this was from Collegiate Nationals in Reno, where we stayed at a casino hotel and the swim got cancelled and I got altitude sick. Why would you want to change that??

There’s a proposal currently being considered to make collegiate triathlon an NCAA sport. Sorta. The actual proposal is to make just women’s triathlon an official “emerging sport” sanctioned under the NCAA – presumably because there’s no way in hell colleges can take on another men’s sport when across the country they’re cutting men’s cross-country, gymnastics, and volleyball in order to make quotas.

Since collegiate nationals happened a few weeks ago there’s been a lot of talk about this proposal because the assumption is it’ll be great for the sport — bring in money, support, athletes, attention. But, the more I think about it the more I’m not sure getting triathlon sanctioned by NCAA is the way to solve any of it’s problems. And, it could easily create a few new ones.

There won’t be an influx of money into NCAA triathlon

One of the main presumptions is that sanctioning triathlon will make it more accessible because schools will fully fund the program, thus allowing more would-be triathletes to afford it. The problem of financial accessibility is a very real one and the hurdle of buying a bike, equipment, race entries, and race travel can be overwhelming for college students, especially those who may come from low-income backgrounds and are working multiple jobs just to pay for college.

But, here’s the thing.

Schools could fund club triathlon programs now. Some do, to a degree, just like they fund other club activities and sports. Oregon’s club cycling team was notoriously well-funded by the school, with support vans and the like. Most schools don’t do this because they don’t have the money or because they choose to spend it elsewhere. They won’t suddenly get the money simply because it’s an NCAA sport.

I suppose the underlying argument is that the schools already have the money, but because spending it on a club sport doesn’t meet certain requirements, making it an NCAA sport will force the funds. Maybe. But, certainly not for the men’s club teams that will remain unsanctioned, not for the schools who opt not to sanction their triathlon teams (and if the proposal gets approved, they’ll have ten years to get 40 schools to sanction teams in order to create an official NCAA national championship), and not for the athletes who won’t meet the new requirements and goals of the newly-sanctioned NCAA program — which will be a LOT of athletes.

There’s also an argument out there that the schools sanctioning the teams will be able to make money by putting on triathlon races. Again, maybe. There’s certainly a demand for triathlon races. But, being a race director is a whole other thing from being an athletic director for a school. And, putting on races takes time and effort, which costs money. Most new races aren’t profitable for years and plenty of them never make money before they disappear.

At Cal, we certainly had a problem figuring out how to pay for everything on the triathlon team. To that end, we received some money from the school based on our club participation level and got lots of bulk discounts and did fundraising and worked with local sponsors who wanted to contribute to a local team. We also did put on a race, which was a lot of work and which made a small amount of money only because we all volunteered our time.

From the best I can tell, most of these things would no longer be possible on a grassroots level for an NCAA sport. Sponsors (and bulk buying and fundraisers, I suppose) are tightly regulated by NCAA. And, maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the men’s club teams will no longer have the support of having a women’s side — they’ll have less money from the school, fewer bulk discounts and group fundraisers, and less overall support, sponsors will be less inclined to support just a men’s side. On the whole, it appears to me, the men’s club will have less financial resources than they did before. And, the women’s side might possibly have more, but only certain athletes and only within certain parameters.

The new NCAA resources will hurt triathlon diversity, not help it

The second assumption seems to be that these new resources will go to the underrepresented in the sport and encourage mass participation, because the NCAA is just so well-known for encouraging diversity?

But, if there do end up being scholarships and funding and resources, would schools spend that money on new students who have never tried triathlon? Would they reach out into communities and areas who have not had a chance to be introduced to this sport? No, they would give the funding to students who are already talented and successful, because that’s lower risk. And, how do you get talented and successful at triathlon by age 18? You have the resources and funding to do so from a younger age.

It seems to me like this isn’t an outreach effort as much as it simply passes the buck back up down the road. By the time NCAA athletes get to college, they have years of experience. NCAA is not set up to teach newbies or introduce people to a sport. NCAA isn’t designed to be inclusive or diverse. That’s not a criticism, really, it’s just a fact. It’s a large organization with lots and lots and lots of money, which naturally then wants the best athletes for that money.

There is right now an idea on the Cal triathlon team to make the team fully-inclusive and find a way to make it possible for more disabled athletes to participate. I don’t know how fleshed out that idea is or if it’ll be successful, but would it even be possible in NCAA sports? I’ve never seen a blind NCAA basketball player. I’ve seen plenty of blind triathletes competing.

The NCAA proposal on the table is to have a Varsity draft-legal team (in addition to some kind of JV team?), because that cuts down on bike costs for the school and allows them to create smaller courses for races, but also because it helps prepare people for the draft-legal Olympics. I think this is unfortunate, though I understand why they’re doing it. Focusing that early on draft-legal triathlon can and probably will discourage a certain segment of people. It would have stopped me. And, making collegiate triathlon an NCAA sport with limited spots on the team will cut out a lot of people who do collegiate triathlon now.

Right now, anyone can do collegiate triathlon. Some of those people won’t go on to win anything, but they may love the sport or they’ll be triathletes for life or they’ll work in the field. And, having that wide a range of abilities and interests and talents on the team is part of what makes collegiate triathlon an important and valuable experience — and what makes it fun.

Right now, collegiate triathlon is fun

Why do people like collegiate triathlon? Because it’s fun.

That’s what people say again and again and what you see in all the pictures coming out of collegiate nationals. That’s what you hear about. When people talk about Cal Tri, yes they talk about winning nationals (and coming second all those years), but they also talk about Tri Prom and Beer Mile and the Christmas Party and trying to slide down the Chancellor’s lawn in the rain using plastic garbage bags and that time you streaked through the library only to learn the hard way that when you run up spiral stairs everyone can watch you going around and around and around. No, that didn’t happen to me.

This guy from Cal Poly was really into triathlon.
This guy from Cal Poly was really into triathlon. From Triathlete
The closest to an appropriate picture I have from parties in college.
The closest to an appropriate picture I have from parties in college. Me and Justin doing our best WTF.

Yes, I know that NCAA sports still have fun to a degree. I went to some of their parties. And, yes, I know club sports have to follow the same school rules to a degree. But, there was a reason that the triathlon team became the refuge of people who had quit the NCAA water polo team or the NCAA cross-country team. Because, collegiate triathlon was more fun. It was more laid-back and welcoming.

I ended up on the triathlon team because it didn’t have cuts, because I didn’t have to convince anyone to give me a spot, because I wanted a serious sport but I wanted to do other things too. I talked to the cross-country/track coach, but I had mono and by the time I didn’t have mono I wasn’t interested in running so much every day that I’d end up hurt and spending another few hours each day listening to lectures about running. I wasn’t interested in everything that came with an NCAA sport. Triathlon was something different to try.

If it is truly an NCAA sport that will change. Maybe people want that to change. I could see why some administrators do. Maybe it has to change anyway, because it’s gotten too big. But, nowhere in the debate about making it NCAA sanctioned has anyone mentioned that the fundamental spirit and core of collegiate triathlon will be different if it’s an NCAA sport. It will be smaller and more systematic, less spontaneous and far-reaching. It will be less fun.

Do you think triathlon should become an NCAA sport?