In the battle of east versus west, where stodgy traditionalism has faced off against its laid back counterpart 3,000 miles away, it seems the east shall reign victorious once again.
At least for now.
A sport that has historically distanced itself from the NCAA label did so again this month, when the NCAA Management Council voted down legislation proposed by the Pac-10 to make men’s rowing an NCAA sport with an NCAA Championship.
The decision will keep the sport’s national championship under the auspices of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA), an organization founded in 1894 by Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, and dominated by East Coast programs.
The vote for the proposition reflects that dichotomy: of the 10 votes supporting the NCAA adoption, three came from the Pac-10, and one each came from the WAC and the West Coast Conference. The Ivy Group delegate, as well as three Big East representatives, all voted no. In total, 26 delegates voted against the proposal.
“I think one of the main reasons why [it was proposed] was because the national championships are always in New Jersey,” said Harvard heavyweight captain Morgan Henderson. “And an NCAA championship might change the site every year.”
The proposition, however, underscores the sport’s traditional rejection of the NCAA label—one that extends as far back as the creation of the NCAA in 1906.
WHERE EAST DIFFERS FROM WEST
Money, prestige, and championships, so often the source of debate in college athletics, are also at the center of the dispute over NCAA adoption of men’s rowing.
The East Coast is home to the IRA and the EARC and has long been the cradle of collegiate rowing. Harvard and Yale’s first race in 1852 marked the first ever collegiate athletic competition, and the IRA National Championship is held each year in Camden, New Jersey.
As USC club coach Gene Kininmonth said in a January article on the team website, “If there is going to be a spoiler [to the proposal] it will be the ECAC, which currently controls men’s rowing nationally. I doubt it is about to willingly loosen its grip on the sport.”
While boats from Pac-10 powerhouses like Washington, Stanford, and Cal must fly out to New Jersey and drive their boats across the country, East coast crews like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton can charter buses and incur far fewer costs to attend the IRA regatta.
There are the scheduling dilemmas as well: Harvard and Yale’s heavyweights both swore off the IRA regatta after 1897 to focus on the annual Harvard-Yale race. In 1973, Washington discontinued its annual trip to Camden, citing a scheduling conflict.
Though Harvard, Yale, and Washington have since returned to IRA competition (and with great success), discontent over location and timing is still prevalent.
“We go right [to Red Top for Harvard-Yale] after IRAs,” heavyweight varsity seven-seat Andrew Boston said. “And us going to IRAs is a fairly recent thing [Harvard returned to the IRAs in 2003]. The Harvard-Yale race is really important. It’s an entirely different race—it’s one of those things that unless you’re part of it, you can’t really understand it.”
If the NCAA were to assume control of men’s heavyweight rowing, the rotating championship site would likely preclude Harvard from attending annually. Harvard-Yale is the second week of June, and IRAs are during the first. Only the proximity of Camden to the racing site in Connecticut makes the combination feasible.
“A championship far away would most likely interfere with that,” Boston said.
Still, however, West Coast crews argue quite validly that NCAA-sanctioned scholarships and a rotating championship site would ease costs of competing with the likes of Harvard and Princeton.
“The Ivy League is not going to give out scholarships,” senior lightweight Alex Phillips said. “And whether [NCAA] scholarships will take talent away—the kids who are going to go to the Ivy League are going to go to the Ivy League no matter what.”
Additionally, there are the costs of traveling to the IRAs, which remain an annual obstacle for Pac-10 programs that must fly to Camden.
Flights for more than 40 people significantly outweigh what Harvard must put toward its IRA travel budget each year.
And though Washington and Cal have combined for 25 national titles, an NCAA label would permit more active and financially-backed recruitment of potential athletes.
But because there is no Title IX incentive to pour money into men’s rowing—or even to adopt programs at all—the money and scholarship supply is much more constrained than amongst female programs.
NO GO, NCAA
But on the surface, it seems the NCAA label is a rather innocuous one.
The NCAA’s adoption of women’s heavyweight rowing, for example, has radically increased the sport’s national popularity. Participating women’s state schools receive 20 scholarships for women’s rowing, and the sport has caught on fast at schools hoping to even out Title IX imbalances with a large women’s program.
It might be premature to speculate, but the growth of the women’s program may yet significantly alter the United States’ performance on the international level.
It sounds like a great idea. NCAA Championships are inherently glamorous and oft-publicized, with CBS running highlight reels of most championships upon conclusion of the fall, winter, and spring seasons. All NCAA champions earn a trip to the White House and a handshake from President Bush.
But the benefits, at least for entrenched men’s rowing programs on the East Coast, perhaps end there.
Under NCAA rules, student athletes are prohibited from betting on any sporting event—something rowers do every week. Prior to each race, competing crews wager racing T-shirts, with the victors taking home the shirt of each crew they’ve beaten. Such practice would fall by the wayside under NCAA restrictions, destroying one of the more storied traditions of college athletics’ oldest sport.
“It would get rid of shirt racing,” Boston said. “Everybody always says a gentleman’s sport comes with a gentleman’s
”It’s got its up and downs,” senior lightweight Chip Schellhorn added. “One of the best things is that we can bet our shirts. If we were NCAA, we couldn’t do that, and I think that’s one of the biggest traditions of racing.”
The long-standing tradition of small-boat racing would likely go extinct as well, as the NCAA women’s championship features just three races—a first varsity eight, a second varsity eight, and a varsity four event.
A Harvard lightweight freshman four that won a national title in 2003 would likely never have existed under the NCAA label: there’s no specific freshman event under NCAA rules, and lightweight rowing would likely be excluded from the NCAA.
Women’s lightweight programs still compete at the IRA national championships in Camden, while their heavyweight counterparts travel to a site that changes annually. Either lightweight rowing would disappear along with the IRA, or the lightweights would retain IRA status as the men’s heavyweights were moved to the NCAA label.
“I would welcome an exploration of men’s rowing becoming an NCAA sport if I could be assured…[t]hat for every men’s heavyweight event, there would be an equivalent men’s lightweight event,” Yale lightweight coach Andy Card wrote in an email. “[And] that the weigh-in requirements and rules for men’s lightweight rowing currently in effect in the EARC be adopted exactly without modification into an NCAA format.”
Finally, the IRA has the luxury of extending invites to specific crews, an amenity easily destroyed if the NCAA took over with its automatic and at-large bids for championship events.
At risk, then, is the loss of several storied aspects of collegiate rowing: the venerated tradition of shirt exchange, small boats racing, and lightweight rowing—a division concentrated in the East Coast since its inception in 1916.
And the benefits? For Harvard, that’s hard to say.
The Crimson heavyweights have won three straight IRA national titles in Camden and five straight Harvard-Yale dual races. One of those annual appearances would likely cease if the NCAA adopted men’s rowing. For the lightweights, the NCAA label might leave them to the IRA format or dissolve them all together, since the women’s NCAA regatta allows just three heavyweight boats to compete.
To some pessimists, the IRA regatta itself is in danger if the NCAA takes over. Perhaps the IRA will become a mere qualifier for an NCAA Championship; perhaps it will disappear all together.
Whatever the outlook, an NCAA takeover of men’s rowing could drastically alter the schedule and stature of East Coast collegiate rowing—the very place the sport originated.
“I really don’t know their logic,” Boston said. “What would we be getting out of getting NCAA status? Maybe we’re official if we have the NCAA label—maybe there is something. I don’t know.”
Boston’s question is a good one: Harvard, and other East Coast programs like it, has benefited greatly from a format it helped create and continue in the late 1800s and early 20th century.
But for now, collegiate rowing as well as its East Coast history—more than 50 years senior to the NCAA’s place in college athletics—has once again shown itself remarkably resistant to change.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.