The 2020 tournament was canceled for safety reasons as part of a blanket cancellation of all NCAA winter championships. The 2021 cancellation can only be thought of as a cost-saving move. The NCAA and Division III telegraphed as early as October that saving money was going to be an important consideration in the Division III winter championships. In the fall, the field size was cut from 180 to 135 to reduce the cost of putting on the tournament. Subsequently, the various committees decided that 70% of teams would have to compete in order for the championships to be held. That number seems arbitrary, and it is. It is the number below which Division III says having the tournament is not worth the cost.
Twenty years ago, I wrestled in the NCAA Championships for the first time. Going through the qualifying tournament, traveling to Iowa, walking into the arena, competing with the best wrestlers in Division III. All of it was an amazing experience that I and 159 other wrestlers got to share. We put in a tremendous amount of work to get there. I can only imagine the devastation I would have felt if I was told the month before that the tournament was too expensive, so it is not going to happen. This year’s wrestlers do not have to imagine how it feels, and some have now missed out twice.
Four years as a college athlete is not a long time compared to the rest of your life, but athletes get experiences in sports that they cannot have any other way. When you lose part of the college athlete experience, there is no way to get it back, and that applies to more than just the 180 (or 135) qualifiers. Wrestling in the regional and striving to make it through to the second day and then into the top three to qualify is the pinnacle of the season. The regional and national dates are circled on every calendar as soon as the previous year’s tournaments end. It is motivation to train hard, make weight, fight through injuries, do homework on the bus, and get up early to go spend all weekend in a gym while your friends sleep and wonder why you put yourself through this.
I feel terrible for the athletes. I constantly tell wrestlers I coach that they do not get to do this for very long and to be grateful for every opportunity, but it is hard when the NCAA cancels a championship due to money when DIII makes up barely 3% of the NCAA budget. Half a career’s worth of championship opportunities are gone. There are deserving guys who will never get to hear their names announced as they walk into the big arena, never get to stand on the podium, never get the gifts that say 2020 or 2021 NCAA Championships. I feel bad for the 1st time senior qualifier last year who had the rug pulled out from under him, the prior qualifier who would have gotten on the podium this season, and seniors who would have qualified for the first time this year but will never get the chance.
I do not know exactly how much it costs to run the DIII regional and national tournaments, but I believe the savings are not worth the cost of lost experience to the athletes who miss out regional and national tournaments after working towards them for years and years.
It is hard to square the NCAA Presidents Council statement with the what the athletes are going through. “We are committed to ensuring that our student-athletes have the best possible experience, and, for us, this means having a meaningful number of competitions.” It is unclear and unremarked on how removing championship opportunities enhances the experience of Division III athletes. I cannot imagine any Division III wrestler feels like losing a postseason he can never get back ensures him the best possible experience.