By Don’s Early Light: Soccer Kicking Away Collegiate Mission

When it comes to collegiate soccer, Dartmouth College’s Drew Galbraith is a know-it-all. What would you expect from the chair of the NCAA Division I men’s soccer committee?

He sees all and knows all. That’s why he might appear a bit conflicted these days. You see, the collegiate soccer landscape may be changing forever — a change that may not be for the better.

“About a year ago the talk started from the coaches about a year-round soccer model,” Galbraith, a senior associate athletics director, said. “The entire governance structure of collegiate athletics is open now, as we have seen — starting with paying athletes.

“The (soccer) advocates see this as the perfect model for the development of American soccer. And this is a perfect time. We’ve never taken this tack before, determining what is best for the skill development of the sport.”

OK, I get it. The coaches want more quality time with their players to develop the soccer skills in those athletes. That’s fine. An admirable pursuit. But I don’t trust the coaches, their motivation or their reasons. Like their college football brethren before them who turned the college game into a mini-NFL, these soccer folks are only concerned with making college soccer more desirable to the elite players in the country, whom the coaches fear will jump college right into the pro ranks.

Don’t believe me? Check out Northwestern’s outspoken junior forward, Joey Calistri: “For a player looking to become a pro, under the current format you are not training to get better, just training to prepare for the next opponent.”

Say what?

Now we all know that NCAA basketball has become the NBA developmental league. And that college football is really the NFL’s minor leagues. So now Division I soccer has become the waterboy for international and pro soccer?

From a player development standpoint, the National Soccer Coaches Athletic Association says, “Division I soccer exists in an outdated format that is inconsistent with the growth of United States soccer and with the current youth and professional soccer structures that operate in 10-month seasons.”

West Virginia AD Oliver Luck is a proponent for the change. “There is a growing concern that the top high school aged players are avoiding college and are instead choosing speculative professional contracts, or involvement with extended youth academy and semipro teams in order to further their careers,” Luck wrote to Division I athletic directors in advocating for an expanded calendar.

And nobody sees this thinking as a problem? What happened to the amateur student-athlete?

You got to look hard to find them. We’re already seeing the erosion of talent on the high school level, where soccer academies are bleeding off the best players with the promise of scholarships and potentially playing for the national team. This kind of in-season poaching threatens to turn high school soccer into intramurals.

Have we really just accepted college athletics as a blatant feeder program for professional leagues? Where does it say it is the job of collegiate athletics to fill the roster of the international team? These soccer people have been watching too much Premier League on television. They seem to think the college game in this country should resemble the club setup in Europe.

And if this full season soccer schedule goes into effect, how will it affect the spring sports? What about playing fields and practice time? Not every school has a separate field for lacrosse and soccer. How are they going to fit a new program — complete with additional practice times and game schedules — into the weather-shortened, graduation-scheduled jam-packed spring lacrosse slate?

But the problem this radical overhaul of collegiate soccer poses goes much deeper. It is nothing less than the final nail in the amateur student-athlete coffin, hammered there by placing athletic development over the mission of education.

And Dartmouth’s Galbraith has a front row seat at the funeral.

“No other sport has a model for such a paradigm shift,” Galbraith said, pointing out that a change like this would not take place until fall 2016, at the earliest, if passed. But the idea is still troubling to Galbraith, as he expects it would be to the rest of the Ivy League, if they were forced into standing against the rest of the Division I field.

Perhaps Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon will continue to be that plaintive voice in the athletic wilderness, as he was when he was one of only two presidents to vote against the NCAA decision to give the big conferences more autonomy.

Right now the college season ends with its national championship game in December. It is admittedly not the most favorable time for a title game, and a warm-weather site would certainly boost attendance. Forget about the pro starts; clean up your own house. Because, in the end, this is college.

“It’s really hard for me to say that we philosophically can stand for the expansion of athletics at the expense of the educational mission of the institution,” Galbraith said. “It’s not the mission of the athletic department to think about professional development.

“Our job is to help (student-athletes) grow as young people and allow the extracurricular component to add to the overall experience as a student.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.