Why does DIII football have different practice rules?

Original photo courtesy Southwestern Athletics

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NCAA Division III recently adopted rules to allot every sport a certain number of days during a period of time to practice. That is every sport except football.

DIII football teams are allowed 16 days of practice over a five-week span during the spring. Players can wear shells for four practices, helmets for 12, and shoulder pads for only four.

To put it politely, Division III coaches are not happy.

“We get 16 practices, but we can’t play football,” one coach said. “Does baseball have to go out during fall ball and play without a glove or a bat? It’s just insane.”

“It ends up being like an offseason program in high school,” another coach said. “It’s great for the skill players, but your linemen aren’t getting a lot done in helmets for most of the workouts.”

Coaches have their thoughts when asked why football schools aren’t allowed to follow the same rules as every other sport in NCAA. 

“I think it makes it easier for them to police. Once you start, you can’t split it up,” one coach said. “You can’t have two weeks of practice before spring break and two weeks after. I think it’s easier for them to track with the large number of teams in Division III.”

“We’ve asked that same question because, during CoVID, we went to the days model. We had 114 days to practice, and that was awesome,” another coach added. “It gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of how we set our schedule. We still had practice days left over at the end of the season.”

Let me understand this. Every sport, including football, was allowed to follow the days model for practice during the CoVID-19 pandemic. Every sport continues to follow the days model, except football. If it doesn’t make sense, you’re not alone.

“The truth of the matter is that all universities in Division III get a vote on football policies, even if they don’t have football,” one coach said. “They still get to vote on what we can do, so it really boils down to a lot of schools that don’t have football voting against it.”

“I think any vote that involves the sport of football should be limited to universities that have football,” another coach said. “Universities without football should not be allowed in the vote, but it happens all the time.”

Industry sources indicate the voting process isn’t likely to change any time soon, and the people chosen to speak on behalf of the football rules weren’t always the best ambassadors for Division III athletics. 

“Football hasn’t necessarily done itself a whole of favors in the past,” one source noted. “But they’re doing a better job of selling what they need. I think things are coming around for the football schools.”

Sources indicate that a lack of resources at some DIII institutions would significantly strain the athletic training staff during spring practice.

“I heard there was an issue that was brought up on it being a strain on athletic trainers, and I understand that,” one coach said. “But I think if you have the resources available to have spring practice without placing a strain on the athletic trainers, then you should be able to practice.”

“I’m told it comes down to athletic trainers and facilities,” another coach added. “I know some teams share locker rooms with other sports, but there’s some bitterness among football coaches in the AFCA.”

Bitterness is an excellent word to describe some coaches' responses to the added strain on an athletic department.

“My answer to that is tough luck,” one coach said. “If you want to remain competitive in football, you’ll find a way to practice in the spring, whether that means raising money to build a new facility or practicing without a locker room.”

Another issue often mentioned by the opposition to a schedule similar to that of Division I and Division II institutions is player safety. 

“I don’t think it’s the right thing for our students. If you’re going to sponsor a sport, then you should be able to do it at a level that is best for the student,” one coach rebutted. “We know a lot of injuries revolve around being acclimated, but they continue to pull back on our time during fall camp in the name of player safety. There are a lot of things we could do to make the game safer by allowing real practice in the spring.”

One thing is certain, every coach agrees on this issue.

“It was eye-opening during my first spring practice,” one coach said upon his arrival at a DIII school. “They said you’re not allowed to practice in helmets or shoulder pads. Spring practice is the first thing that needs to be addressed.”

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