Regional Road Bump

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.8, September 2004,

Four Division I student-athletes and their coaches have learned the hard way that advancing to the NCAA national championships may require competing while hurt.

The lesson, a sign that the regionals-based NCAA qualifying process remains clouded, grew out of this springís Mideast Regional meet in Baton Rouge, La. The athletes were initially told that if they were certified as injured by the meet physician and didnít compete, they could still be eligible for advancement to the nationals based on their seasonal descending-order list position.

They stayed out of the regional only to find out the next day that the NCAA has no provision for a medical waiver. They were told thereís no avoiding the requirement to compete in a given event at their regionals if they want a chance to advance to the national championships.

The outcome was understandable, given the NCAAís emphasis on the regional format, but that didnít make it any easier emotionally for the athletes, says Lance Harter, Head Womenís Coach at the University of Arkansas.

Harterís affected athlete was junior sprinter Veronica Campbell, ranked No. 1 nationally at the time in the 100 meters and No. 3 in the 200. She injured her hamstring in a 400-meter relay preliminary heat the Friday of the Mideast Regional.

Campbell was evaluated by the Arkansas athletic trainer and the meet physician, who was the team doctor for host Louisiana State University. The doctor confirmed a hamstring strain, and the meet referee ruled that Campbell did not have to compete. He referred to the NCAA track and field rule book, which outlines the medical-waiver procedure, and told Harter that Campbell would be eligible to advance.

Given her high ranking on the descending-order lists in her top events, it was reasonably clear Campbell would get an at-large berth at the nationals, so she and Harter decided to forgo the remaining regional races. Another consideration was Campbellís status as a favorite to make the Olympic team from her native Jamaica (which she did). There was too much at stake to risk worsening her hamstring.

That was Friday afternoon. Around noon on Saturday, Harter got a call from the meet referee, informing him that the NCAA said there was no medical-waiver provision and that Campbell was out of the nationals. Arkansas coaches appealed to the Track and Field Committee, which stood by the ruling. "Unfortunately," says Harter, "the NCAA Track and Field Committee has a technical manual for the regional meets that does not say anything about a medical situation. Thatís where the gray area appeared."

Meanwhile, a similar scenario played out with three other athletes at the Mideast Regional: senior sprinter Sean Lambert of the University of Tennessee; Louisiana Tech junior sprinter Shandra Freeman; and Alistair Cragg of Arkansas, who had an existing injury and sat out the 5,000 meters, an event in which he was the defending national champion. All four appealed to the NCAA Championships Cabinet and were told the Cabinet was not going to overrule the sport committee.

The Mideast situation was unfortunate, but the meet referee has no authority over advancement, says Mark Bockleman, NCAA Assistant Director of Championships and liaison to the Division I Menís and Womenís Outdoor Track and Field Committee.

"The fundamental premise of the regionals is head-to-head competition. That is what the Committee and the Championships Cabinet said with this decision," Bockleman says. "Thatís why thereís the rule that you have to run in the regionals. Thereís no free pass so someone can skip the regionals while the rest of the world has to go out and compete pretty hard at the regionals to advance."

The Track and Field Committee is discussing ways to better inform coaches, meet officials, and student-athletes of the necessity of regional competition and of how medical issues are handled, Bockleman says, but the rule itself is firm.

"Itís such a new process for everyone that there are going to be some unforeseen scenarios," Harter says. "Unfortunately for Veronica Campbell, sheís a victim."

Harter would like a clear statement that there is no medical waiver into the nationals added to the regionals technical manual. "The modification would be, ĎIf you donít run an event in the regional championship, you donít have a chance to advance to the national championship,í" he says. "I think there should be wording to the effect that no oneóno doctor, no referee, no meet officialócan exempt anyone."

In the future, Harter says heíll tell an athlete in a similar position to line up and do the best he or she can under the circumstances. The athlete will have to try not to worsen the injury, and may have to visit the medical tent to try to avoid a not-best-effort disqualification, he adds.