Line in the sand: Beach volleyball faces NCAA vote
The future of beach volleyball as an NCAA sport is in jeopardy, with opposition arising from an unlikely source.
Coaches and administrators at traditional indoor volleyball powers like Penn State, the three-time defending national champion, and about half of the beach-blanketed Pac 10 have forced a vote at the NCAA convention in Atlanta on Friday to remove “sand volleyball” from a list of potential varsity sports.
Even at schools without prominent programs, athletic directors complain that making the beach game an option – schools would have no obligation to add it – will pressure them to compete, stressing their already stretched budgets.
“We’re 38 years from when Title IX was passed, and we’ve forgotten all the things that got us here,” said Kathy DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association and a leading proponent of making sand volleyball an official NCAA sport.
“What we’re looking for is more opportunities for women to participate in intercollegiate sports,” said DeBoer, a longtime indoor coach and former professional basketball player. “If we had only added women’s sports that we had money for, and we had only added sports that didn’t borrow from other sports, I wouldn’t be here. There was never extra money; it was always inconvenient to add sports for women.”
Fresh off an American sweep of the gold medals in the Beijing Olympics that gave the already telegenic sport a boost in popularity, the NCAA agreed last year to add “sand volleyball” to its list of emerging sports for women. The sport, known more commonly as beach volleyball, is being called sand volleyball by the NCAA to avoid scaring away landlocked schools.
The designation allowed schools to begin building varsity programs for the 2010-11 academic year and gave the sport 10 years to develop a collegiate following that would elevate it to an NCAA championship sport. But the decision ignited yet another turf battle between the two-on-two beach discipline and more the traditional six-on-six game, with the sandy set lining up against the indoor coaches and university administrators trying to protect their recruits and their budgets.
“Sand volleyball will have a direct impact on indoor volleyball,” said Sue Scheetz, the associate athletic director at Penn State, listing the need for additional coaches, scholarships, facilities and travel, as well as a potential drain on athletes from the indoor programs. “Costs will be considerable.”
Sixty-three schools – including former NCAA indoor champions Nebraska, Stanford and Washington as well as Penn State and the rest of the Big Ten – requested an override vote to remove sand volleyball from the emerging sports list. If 62.5 percent of those at the convention vote in favor of the override, sand volleyball would be spiked.
“It’s very difficult for me to get a feel for it,” DeBoer said in a telephone interview as she arrived at the NCAA meeting. “Here’s what I keep hearing: ‘I’m for beach volleyball. I think it’s a great sport. I’m for opportunities for women. But we’re going to vote for this override because it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us.”‘
The emerging sports list was designed to encourage compliance with Title IX, the federal law that obligates schools to make sports available to women. Few athletic administrators are willing to publicly oppose opportunities for female athletes, and those within the volleyball community are leery of torpedoing a kindred sport.
“It is a very, very difficult thing to be against,” DeBoer said. “We’re just trying to bring as much sunshine as we possibly can so people know this is being tracked.”
But indoor coaches at volleyball powers are worried that their players would be lured to the sexier side of the sport, or get injured playing in what used to be the offseason. Academic administrators are worried about athletes missing even more class time. Athletic directors, especially those away from the water where sand courts would need to be constructed, see a need for expensive new facilities and travel.
“Other emerging sports do not directly impact a currently sponsored varsity program,” Scheetz said. “Recruiting will be directly impacted, as institutions that sponsor both indoor and sand volleyball will draw more of the talent pool to their institutions. The ‘rich’ will have the potential to get richer at the cost of other institutions talent pools.”
To DeBoer, the concern for small schools is conveniently timed.
“To hear Penn State and Texas all of the sudden be for the little guy is a little disingenuous,” she said.
Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee said at the NCAA meeting that he was still waiting to hear more details on how the sport would operate. But if it could run like indoor and outdoor track – the same coaches and athletes without additional scholarships – it would be attractive.
“From that standpoint, it is very attractive and has tremendous potential for great growth,” he said. “The funding of that is a big issue, but we’re obviously open and very supportive of additional opportunities for female student-athletes.”
DeBoer stressed that no school will be forced to compete if it can’t afford to. But she acknowledged that it may be unrealistic to expect that those with indoor teams would be able to skip the sand: The popularity of beach volleyball – and the fact that it is the only volleyball discipline with a professional tour – makes it likely that players will lobby their athletic departments for a chance to compete.
Administrators don’t want to be in the position to turn them down, she said.
“When you talk to people you’ll get some version of, ‘All the kids will want to play,”‘ DeBoer said. “Which leads you right back to the question of, ‘Isn’t that the constituent group we’re supposed to be serving?’
“It’s gone from opportunity to recruiting, and recruiting advantages and disadvantages. I’m not so naive to not know that it’s part of what we do in intercollegiate athletics, but it seems to be way more a factor for the schools who have profit-producing sports. Has all of intercollegiate athletics gone away from choice and opportunity and what’s good for the kids to what’s good for somebody else’s agenda?”
– AP sportswriters Genaro Armas and Charles Odum contributed to this story from State College, Pa., and Atlanta, respectively.