Let Them Row

There's no good reason why club rowers should be held to four years of eligibility.

IN THE UNITED STATES, there are two kinds of university rowing: varsity and club. Varsity programs are funded by their universities (at least to an extent), and have some sway with athletics departments/admissions when it comes to recruiting and getting student-athletes into school. Club programs enjoy none of those benefits—athletes pay to row after having already been admitted to the university, and typically there’s no help in terms of scholarships available to club rowers (unless, of course, s/he has an unrelated academic scholarship). So, why are club athletes asked to be subject to the same rules of eligibility as varsity athletes?

The reasons for this are historical. In the past, when club programs were eligible to compete at the IRA National Championship Regatta, it made sense to have consistent rules of engagement between club and varsity rowers. Now, regardless of how good a club program is, it cannot compete at the IRA.

What other benefit does adhering to NCAA rules confer on club rowing programs? Well, there isn’t one.

Club rowers should be free of eligibility rules. If a full-time student wants to pursue a masters degree at her/his university, then it should be up to the student whether s/he wants to pay to continue rowing in a competitive program. That’s how it works in Great Britain, and there really isn’t a downside.

Also, it means that club athletes, who tend to be more raw/less experienced than their varsity counterparts, have more time to train and develop within a competitive environment, without having to move across the country or put school on hold to pursue athletics.

That would benefit not only the athletes themselves, but also the programs, and ultimately the sport as a whole in the United States—more student-athletes involved means more dues paid and more time spent within the program, which means greater financial stability and a stronger community.

But what if a great athlete from a varsity program does a masters at a different school, where rowing is a club sport?

Great! That athlete can help elevate the entire program.

Would it be possible to ‘stack the deck’ by trying to convince a bunch of former varsity rowers to go to graduate school at your university?

Sure, but it’s all contingent upon the students actually being admitted to the school—if they are admitted as graduate students, then it should be up to the students to decide whether or not they compete as club athletes.

Could people try to cheat the system through ‘part-time’ student status or extension classes?

Yes. So, the rule is, if you want to row, you have to be a full-time student at the university. Period.

What about mixed regattas, like Dad Vails, where club and varsity programs still mix?

In those cases, the club crews would need to meet the same requirements as the varsity programs. If that means swapping a couple people into/out of the varsity eight, then fine.

The bottom line: Let more people stay involved in the sport by removing this needless restriction on club athletes.

Illustration by the author. This piece was originally published in our January 2019 premium newsletter.


Coming up in our February premium newsletter: An interview with Conlin McCabe about his world record hour of power; why Washington Husky head coach Michael Callahan loves Seattle; Canadian Olympian Jason Dorland on his book, Pulling Together; more opinion and the best of the rowing web this month.

Sign up for just $5/month or $30/year, and have great rowing content delivered straight to your inbox, as well as access to all premium articles.