Monday, April 09, 2007

Boat Priorities - NCAA Style

Over the past several days, we've had two related discussions going on in the comments section of various posts. They tie together and I think they're important enough to bring to the front page.

The first revolves around the relative competitiveness and intensity of racing at NCAAs vs. IRAs. I (and others here) have argued that last year's IRA was as intense and competitive as last year's NCAA, if not more so. While I think the competitiveness of the two events is an important discussion, it's been discussed here quite a bit, both on the front page and in comments, and I've yet to hear a reasonable argument to support the NCAA side in 2006. I'll leave competitiveness at that. A reader commented, however, that "If any of the UCF lightweights make a boat and race at NCAA's, they will step up to a higher level of intensity than they have ever experienced."

Now, I don't think that this intensity discussion is particularly important or fruitful because intensity is a function of many things, not simply the importance of the race. Unlike "spectacle sport" athletes, rowers derive intensity from the competition against themselves as well as their opponent; from the the battle for perfection. I've experienced practice pieces as intense as championship races. Intensity of any race or regatta will vary from year to year and from event to event.

I understand why the reader who posted the comment above wants to hold that view. I understand that we've been conditioned to believe that something about the NCAA legitimizes a championship that mere mortals can't handle for themselves. Nonetheless, I completely reject the notion that in any given year the NCAA championship is more intense than the IRA championship. That position is unsupportable by any objective means. (By the way, the opposite proposition is also unsupportable.) Let's go back to 2006. I was at both the NCAA championships and the IRA championships. The surprises and back and forth nature of the IRAs have been discussed many times here and I assume are familiar to the reader. The NCAA championship was over within 20 strokes. That's right, 20 strokes, and by 500 meters Princeton had open water on the field and for 1500 meters simply countered any boat silly enough to attempt a move. I can't imagine a less competitive race. Oh, wait, I forgot that the slower boats frothing in Princeton's wake were in a battle too, for the team trophy (aka the "national championship"). And that brings me to the next point of discussion.

For many years, when you raced a dual or a regatta, there were only two questions to answer - Did you win? and Did you sweep? While there were point trophies, no one really cared about them because if your boat didn't win, they were simply self esteem trophies. It wasn't until the NCAA got hold of rowing and deemed it a "team sport" that we were told we need to care about point trophies (this is a different discussion if we're talking international rowing). We need to care because now, the point trophy is really the "national championship." Well, let me tell you a secret about point trophies - no one cares. Let me say that again - NO ONE CARES. Well, except the winners who see it as the next best thing to a sweep (maybe it is) if they won the V8, or see it as a self esteem trophy if they lost the V8. Whenever I read about the "national champion" Cal women, I laugh.

Look at the men, however. We all know who won the V8 at IRAs - Cal. Cal is the National Champion. Do you know who won the point trophy? Is there a point trophy? Give truth serum to a member of the Cal women's V8 last year and ask her if she'd rather be a "national champion" or winner of the V8. What do you think she'd say? I know what she'd say. The NCAA has distorted rowing's priorities.

It is this distortion that has had a deleterious effect on lightweight women. In another comment, when discussing lightweights rowing with heavyweights, a reader noted that " the point is that maybe it ought to be about the fastest BOAT, regardless of class year OR size of the rower." I agree with this point completely. This is why heavyweights will always take precedence and always be more glamorous. It's when we get beyond that fastest boat that things get dicey.

To me, there is a natural priority of boats when the sport is unencumbered by outside influences. That priority is:

  1. Heavyweight 1V
  2. Lightweight 1V
  3. Heavyweight 2V
  4. Lightweight 2V
  5. Heavyweight 3V4
  6. Lightweight 3V4
This priority assumes all six boats can be equally competitive in their categories (an unlikely assumption). After the heavy 1V, the light 1V is comprised of the best rowers in that class. If we bother to create the class, it's best rowers get priority over the second best rowers in another class. Priorities adjust when certain boats are not competitive (I'll come back to this).

Under the NCAA regime, the priorities are as follows:
  1. Heavyweight 1V
  2. Heavyweight 2V
  3. Heavyweight 3V4
  4. Lightweight 1V
This is a complete distortion of the sport's historical and natural priorities. Under the guise of a "national championship" the lightweight category has been relegated to rowing's backwater, ignored by the NCAA, the CRCA, and athletic directors. As one poster said:
There should be lightweight V8 and V4 events at NCAAs, not as part of the heavyweight team event, but as an entirely other category, they same way DII and DIII programs have their own championship. From what I can tell, there are far more competitive Lightweight programs than there are DII programs.
Unfortunately, as long as rowing is a team sport, this can't happen. Lightweights can only be added as another event in the "national championship" which would mean that all contenders would need to boat a lightweight crew. Let's all hold our breath for the CRCA vote on that, shall we?

Sorry for the length here, but one last point. If the heavy 1V looks like it will be cannon fodder, but the light 1V could be competitive, a coach has a strategic decision to make. With the NCAA involved, every coach will still go with the cannon fodder heavyweights, when perhaps it would be best for the program to go with a nationally contending light 1V. Same for a light 1V - this was the point of the Line of Hope. If the lights are cannon fodder, they go back to a heavy 2V or 3V4. This happens all the time.

There's the straw man, set a match to it if you will. Of course you'd like a shot at the heavy 1V over the lightweight boat, but please skip the "NCAA think" and be honest with yourself before you tell me how you'd rather be wallowing around in a heavyweight JayVee than contending for the national championship in a lightweight Varsity.


Anonymous said...

Hey JW,
I agree with you on many points and I like your idea of rankings of boat order here. But you should give the Cal women more credit. They won the V8 AND the team championship in 2005 then turned around and won as team again in 2006. If the goal is to win the team championships, then they did the best job of achieving that goal. Don't be down on a team achieves the goal that is set before them (even if you think the goal is misplaced). Princeton was the NCAA V8 champion and Cal was the NCAA team champion. We don't get to pick all the rules, but we do have to play by them.

JW Burk said...

Yes, you're right. I don't mean to be down on the Cal women, they just happen to be the most recent example. I also agree with you that Cal played by the rules they were given and came out on top. In trying to make a point, I often come off too strident in my advocacy. Yes, Cal has a great program and I only singled them out because they were the most recent example. I could just as easily have written a post about adapting to the NCAA's priorities in which they would be the heroes.

Anonymous said...

Here’s a strawman you’ve done an outstanding job of pummeling: the 2006 NCAA and IRA championships as THE measuring stick of relative competitiveness. I don’t remember a whole heck of a lot from stats class, but I do now that a sample size one can lead to some rather dubious generalizations, especially when you’re basing your entire argument on a comparison of a year that, to given historical trends, looks like an outlier for both regattas.

A historical review: (would have gone back further, but row2k’s links are broken for 2000)

2001 – 15 seconds separated the whole field in the NCAA grand final, compared to 20 seconds in the IRA grand final.

2002 – 16 seconds separated the whole field in the NCAA grand final, compared to 23 seconds in the IRA grand final.

2003 – 12 seconds separated the whole field in the NCAA grand final, compared to 16 seconds in the IRA grand final. This was actually a pretty competitive year for the lightweights, with actually a tighter spread than the 2006 regatta; maybe the start of an upward trend? Except that in 2004, well…

2004 – 8 seconds separated the whole field in the NCAA grand final, compared to 37 seconds in the IRA grand final.

2005 – 6 seconds separated the whole field in the NCAA grand final, compared to 34 seconds in the IRA grand final.

2006 – 15 seconds separated the whole field in the NCAA grand final (7 of which are accounted for by an outlier Princeton boat – maybe the best collegiate women’s eight in history), compared to 17 seconds in the IRA grand final.

In other words, a steady trend of improvement in the NCAA field, while the IRA field bounced around dramatically over the past six years. Note that even the best IRA years (2003, 2006) are no more competitive than the worst NCAA years (2001, 2002, 2006).

I could do a similar rundown of qualifying spreads from year to year if I had the time and energy – there was of course 2005 when Ohio State finished 22 seconds back of Princeton in their heat and still managed to make the grand final, or 2003 when 30 seconds separated the advancing crew from the non-advancing crew in Heat 1 of IRA’s – but I don’t right now. Maybe some other time.

Perhaps 2006 really was a bellwether year for lightweight women’s rowing as you say – let’s hope it was. But the long term trends don’t look so good, which leads honest observers to remain justifiably skeptical. Aggressively waving one year of evidence as “proof” just makes you look disingenuous, defensive and desperate. Come back with the same sort of evidence this year and next year and the next year, and then you’ll just look RIGHT.

JW Burk said...

Perhaps I wasn't clear. I used 2006 only for two reasons: first, it was the year that a poster was specifically claiming was more competitive at NCAAs, and second, because the "intensity" poster claimed that in any given year the NCAAs are more intense than the IRAs, thus allowing me to refute the argument with a year of my choosing. I have many, many times pointed out the statistics you have stated above, and used them as proof that the lightweight field is not where it needs to be. Given the money and attention lavished on heavyweights, even coming close is an achievement, but still not enough. So, I agree with what you say above, but I don't think it affects my argument.