Monday, February 12, 2007

Jim Dietz on Women's Lightweight Rowing

Several times over the course of the past year or so, people have mentioned in comments and emails that Jim Dietz, women's coach at UMass, is a supporter of women's lightweights and has some interesting ideas about our sport. I contacted Jim, and he was kind enough to give me his views.

I began by asking if the NCAA championship has been good for women's heavyweight rowing and if there might ever be a NCAA lightweight women's championship. Jim responded:

I do think that the NCAA has been good for women’s heavyweight rowing. The up side is that the NCAA is the yardstick that all sports are measured on here in the USA. This is very important because all athletic directors and sports enthusiast understand it. The down side is the direction that the sport took when it became a “team sport” under the NCAA umbrella. The championship quickly turned into what the BCS is in football. (Only for those with 1A football programs or endowments capable of supporting the 2 eights and a four format).

There are many serious rowing programs in this country that will never be part of that NCAA experience. Like lightweight rowing the question then is WHY? Rowing is an Olympic sport, yet it is the only “NCAA-Olympic sport” that does not look like the Olympic program. If it were, at least there would be lightweight doubles and ALL the collegiate rowing programs would have an opportunity to qualify for the championship. When you go down to smaller boats the “size” of the individuals rowing become less of a factor.

The only chance that I can see for lightweights becoming an NCAA sport would be to get 40+ programs together and petition the NCAA for a separate event. In the two years that I have been on the NCAA rowing committee, I cannot recall any lightweight legislation or proposals for inclusion. That legislation would have to come from a Conference Office or the CRCA.
I think there are two interesting points here - one is that the NCAA championship program is different than the Olympic program (more on that later) and the second is the last paragraph on lightweights becoming a NCAA sport. Lightweights are dependent on Conferences or the CRCA to bring lightweight legislation to the NCAA. It's hard to see a conference that might do this, and the CRCA, although tasked with representing lightweights, is generally hostile to the category (for evidence see my interview with the CRCA president, who was ignorant of any lightweight issues).

I then asked about team championships and if counting lightweight women toward team trophies would help grow the category.
I don’t understand the American fascination with the V8. Every medal is of equal value at the Olympics. Why do they have so many events at the IRA if the coaches themselves discount these wins in pairs and fours as “not real events.” To say that it's not fair for one school to be racing their top 2 or 4 athletes against another school's 16 through 20th athlete’s is crazy. If the Women’s NCAA is a true “Team Championship” then all three boats should get equal points. I don’t think that this strategy will help the lightweight agenda. Organization and creating more events would better serve your cause.
I agree that organizing and more events would help the cause, but I still think that a team trophy for say, Eastern Sprints, with equal points for a lightweight eight, would go a long way toward creating more events.

I then asked a general question about the future of women's lightweights.

Lets face it, there would be no NCAA women’s championship if there was not a need for gender equity. ... We should be demanding more from the NCAA. If you look at the numbers of women rowing and not the number of institutions having teams you will see that the NCAA is getting off cheap. The schools with full lightweight squads are giving those schools the gender numbers with no opportunity to get to a NCAA championship. There are still many collegiate rowing programs in this country that are not varsity. If they believed that they could qualify one boat for the NCAA do you think they might go varsity? If those schools went varsity the NCAA formula for athlete participation would go up.
[To be continued following the next team preview...]


Anonymous said...

Perhaps I will have a skewed view of this topic as a rower at a school that takes for granted its lightweight women's program (and funding, and top-of-the-line equipment, and our own coaches, and... ), but I don't entirely understand the desire to make this sport a full fledged NCAA event.

Of course, I assume there are tons of complicated items like title 9, etc to be dealt with... But both the heavyweight and lightweight men's programs seem to be doing quite well without becoming intimately acquainted with NCAA... (I see one of the most popular posts on the side bar is all about the negatives of heavy men joining for an NCAA championship instead of the IRA...) What are the benefits for lightweight women in making such a step? It seems to my naive little self that the NCAA status really puts a lot of restrictions and complicated details unnecessarily into the sport.

The answer: Growth, I see... but would growth not come anyway? Are numbers not up already? Isn't the lightweight women's event at the IRA becoming more and more competitive? (I don't see this plateauing either right now) Rowing has been around for a while, and it seems to be doing quite well. I think the focus for growth of the lightweight women's categories should lie in, as stated, organization and more or even different (this might be a bit radical?) events.

I think it is worth pointing out specifically that the only lightweight women's Olympic event is the 2x (sculling). This is in stark contrast to the only national championship event being the 8 (sweeping). I don't particularly want to say that we should shift the traditional focus from the 8 (that sounds really radical to me...), but there is an inherent discontinuity here. Maybe as the sport continues to grow, rather than adding 4+'s to the menu at the major championships we should add the 2x?

And now that I am thinking about it, funny/weird that the lightweight men also only have lwt sculling at the Olympics, yet they too only have the 8 at the IRA and Sprints. (?)Hmmm...

JW Burk said...

I think your view may be a bit skewed, but you have written almost exactly what I would have written about a year ago. My view has changed since then mainly because I am less certain that growth will come anyway. True, the field is getting much more competitive, but as we see Tulsa and Stetson add lightweights, we see URI allow them to drift away (I could be wrong here, the next couple of seasons will tell us more). Even in those schools that add lightweights, its not clear that they are adding them as a separate program. Take UCF, for example. One of the top programs in the country, yet it isn't a separate team. With a change in coaches that program could disappear tomorrow. As it is, lightweights are pulled into the heavyweight boat during the season.

On the other hand, I think it's pretty clear that lightweight boats self-select out of competition as the season progresses because they realize they can't compete with the top boats, thereby leaving a false impression of the strength of the category. Those rowers then go into heavyweight boats and become part of this huge heavyweight category with hundreds of teams. Because heavyweight boats are the default for nearly all programs, the unsuccessful lightweights join unsuccessful heavyweights and together become fodder for the top heavyweight teams and get their brains beat in week after week (maybe winning a minor regatta or two along the way). I have an upcoming post on this theory, so I'll leave it there for now.

If you've read much of FITD, you know that I've been highly critical of the NCAA, yet I'm beginning to think that an NCAA championship would be best for lightweights (call it the FITD Dialectic!). While I agree with you that the men get along fine without it, because the heavy women have an NCAA championship, I fear that athletic directors see heavyweights as "real" crew, and are happy using only heavyweights for their "woman quota." So, because it exists for the heavies, I wonder if it doesn't have to exist for the lights to ensure lightweights continue as a collegiate category. I don't know...

Sculling is a whole other issue. I've written here something similar to what you've said about sculling, and I'm torn between the Teti championship model (only top eights) and the Dietz "Olympic" championship model. If we continue to have fours though, I think quads would be a much better option. They're faster, more exciting, and could train alongside eights. As for Olympic events (the light men race a 4-, by the way), I would have only the fastest 1, 2, 4, and 8 person boats, men and women, heavy and light, leaving out the eight for the lightweights. In other words, the 1x, 2x, 4x, and 8+ only. This would drop the number of rowers from 46 to 44 and provide more exciting events. For colleges, though, an eight puts the most people on the water, so it's a favored boat.

This issue, I think, is the most important issue in women's lightweight rowing - how does the sport grow? Is it through different events? Can better organized coaches do it? Different boats? Does it have to be through the NCAA? I'm afraid if it has to be through the NCAA because I can't see how that will happen. I wish we had more comments like yours on this subject because I think it would be incredibly valuable to air out a variety of views. Heck, we could start a wiki on that issue alone!

Anonymous said...

Any D1 rowing program should be able to field a team of 2 eights and a four.

If NCAAs followed the Olympic format, programs would pot hunt, which is done at the Olympics. Collegiate rowing would not grow under the Olympic format; numbers would actually go down. Coaches, who don't think they can qualify as a team or eight, would focus on a pair or double that they thought might get to NCAAs. The majority of the team would be ignored and quit.

Racing crews of similar importance has a lot of merit. If all countries put their top male rowers in the 4-, the race would be awesome. Great athletic achievements will grow the sport, not looking for an easier event to win.