Connecting The WA/USATF/NCAA Qualifying Disconnect

USTFCCCA’s CEO Sam Seemes points out that the American collegiate system “supports track & field more than any country in the world.” But WA demanded changes. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

WORLD ATHLETICS HAS RULED that effective January 01 of this year no marks from meets run under NCAA or U.S. high school federation rules will be recognized for any of its purposes. Not for points-scoring in its rankings system, not for World Championships qualifying, nor, it would appear, for WA’s yearly and all-time lists.

For WA — which since the introduction of Olympic qualifying standards in ’60 has accepted performances from meets sanctioned by U.S. collegiate and prep federations — marks will no longer exist unless meet organizers agree to conduct competition in accordance with WA’s rules.

Furthermore, the international federation — with USATF obligated to agree and supportive of the underlying rationale — is requiring that in order for performances to be recognized, meets also must be listed on WA’s Global Calendar. In order to appear on that Calendar, U.S. meets must be sanctioned or endorsed by USATF.

And effective March 01, meets must have lined up inclusion on the Calendar 60 days before the meet is staged. USATF is urging organizers to initiate the application process no later than 70 days ahead of time.

If that’s news to you as a fan, athlete or coach you are not alone. When WA instituted the policy last summer, it notified member federations but as far as the general public of athletics devotees is concerned it buried the lede on page 4 of a 6-page PDF linked from an August 22 web release on the Budapest ’23 qualifying system and entry standards.

Rule changes by the NCAA and the NFHS (national high school federation) will be needed to stave off further vexing and confusing balkanization of track & field, yet 5 months is a short period in which to cajole rule changes in a non-revenue sport out of a massive century-old, $1-billion-in-annual-revenue behemoth like the NCAA.

WA — having no direct relationship with U.S. collegiate and scholastic federations — has, as is the normal course, ceded that concern to USATF, whose officials have been scrambling.

Michael Nussa, USATF’s Associate Director Of High-Performance Programs, cites at least one saving grace. “Most NCAA rules are in alignment with USATF or World Athletics rules already,” he says. “USATF and the NCAA have been working really closely together over the last 5 or 6 months to make sure that we’re aligned where there are differences between World Athletics, USATF and the NCAA.”

But on paper at least, there is a Duplantis-vault-level stumbling block for the mandate that would bend NCAA competitions to WA rules.

“The conflict there,” says Sam Seemes, CEO of the USTFCCCA collegiate coaches association, “is the NCAA rule book, and an NCAA bylaw, which say that all NCAA member institutions must conduct their competitions under NCAA rules if there are NCAA playing rules for that sport.

“You can’t accomplish both.”

Says Seemes, “Maybe World Athletics doesn’t know this is going on, but over here it has made the athletes a pawn in doing this or not doing it. And it’s put collegiate coaches or those who run collegiate meets in a terrible position of, what are you gonna do? If I’m an NCAA member institution, am I gonna run my meet and not meet the NCAA’s requirements and rules? Or am I going to run a meet where my student-athlete’s mark isn’t going to count [in the eyes of WA and USATF]?

Seemes notes, “This also affects non-collegiate athletes because, as you know, in the States pretty much except for a few meets, the open athletes are competing at collegiate meets.”

It also affects elite preps. Until that reality is addressed through dialog with and action by the NFHS and its 51 state-level affiliates you can expect to find many high-level marks achieved in scholastic competition unacknowledged by WA’s keepers of its U20 (Junior) and U18 (Youth) lists.

For 2023, Nussa says, “USATF will maintain the same qualifying process for U20 Championships that we have historically. There won’t be the same sanctioning requirements for U20 as for the Senior Championships.”

The 800-pound gorilla that’s being asked to sprint toward compliance or have its athletes left behind in the wilderness internationally is the NCAA — along with the NJCAA and NAIA collegiate federations.

Put it this way as the alphabet associations dicker swiftly to find a workable solution: Had the new policy of ’23 been in effect in ’18, Sydney McLaughlin’s 52.75 world leader from that season’s SEC Champs would not have been recognized by WA for any purpose. Ditto the 53.60 time she ran 3 weeks earlier that is the ratified World Junior Record.

Same for the 19-8¼ (6.00) vault by Mondo Duplantis at the ’19 SEC. It was that season’s third-highest clearance worldwide but would be a ghost mark in WA’s eyes this year. Yet Duplantis’s ’19 season kinda matters in any objective timeline of our sport’s history.

If in some alternate universe ’23’s policy were in effect for ’21, Athing Mu, who hit her all-important Olympic Trials qualifier, 1:57.73, at Baylor’s Michael Johnson Invitational in April, never would have qualified for the Olympic Trials, or won the Olympic Trials, or claimed Olympic gold.

In late January defending NCAA outdoor vault champion Sondre Guttormsen cleared a season-leading PR 19-2 (5.84) at the Harvard-Princeton-Yale tri-meet. The competition does not appear on WA’s Global Calendar. Thus, as best we can determine, WA will not recognize Guttormsen’s mark at all, much less its world-leader status. At least the Norwegian’s leadership was short-lived, swept away by vaulting at the eponymous Mondo Classic in Sweden on February 02.

Track & field has just entered an era, hopefully a short one, of a confounding, statistically divided — and inevitably more inscrutable — sport. T&FN and other longtime compilers of lists, other than World Athletics, will continue to report and credit statistically valid performances.

The collegiate system develops elite U.S. and international athletes, puts on some 1600 meets annually and, as Seemes points out, “supports track & field more than any country in the world. By multiples. So I think you’ve got to recognize them as a great partner in support of the sport.”

World Athletics asserts that it does. “We’re hugely lucky to have something like the NCAA and the level of competitions that they put on,” says WA’s Executive Director Of Communications Jackie Brock-Doyle. “But we have to draw a line in the sand on rules.

“This is really about tightening the belt across the board so there is an understanding, there is consistency and there is fairness. What we would hope is that this is the impetus to get everybody rowing in the same direction on this.”

Most of us who love the sport would agree standardizing rules across the board will benefit the sport, render it easier to understand.

On December 15, 2022, USATF e-mailed a 2-page letter “to our stakeholders” on the matter.

To “alleviate rumors or misunderstandings,” USATF in that letter laid out the facts as of that date. It offered assurance that the national federation had been “working earnestly and closely over the last several months with representatives from the USOPC, the NCAA, and the USTFCCCA to determine a simplified process for collegiate meets — should they choose — to easily obtain a USATF sanction, be added to the World Athletics calendar, and follow World Athletics competition rules.”

Boston University, with its indoor facility conducive to smokin’ fast distance times, was among the first schools to navigate through the Global Calendar policy hoops this season. But it wasn’t cheap. (BU COMMUNICATIONS)

Later, rather than force collegiate administrators to run the gauntlet of its complicated and sometimes pricey sanctioning process, USATF settled on a more streamlined protocol to “endorse college and university events which agree to follow WA and USATF Competition Rules. A USATF endorsement will allow inclusion of such events on the WA Global Calendar” once meet organizers have completed a few relatively simple steps and paid $100.

The special endorsement system for collegiate meets is now up and running.

The December 15 communication went on to state the following.

Most NCAA competition rules are the same or are stricter than World Athletics competition rules and will require no modifications. There are three additional key rule requirements that NCAA meets would have to follow to meet World Athletics competition rules requirements, and all should have minimal burden on meet management or officials.

1. Shoes worn in competition must be listed as approved on the latest World Athletics shoe list, which is posted online. Random shoe checks must be completed by a meet official, and coaches or competitors may protest the legality of another competitor’s shoes following normal protest rules.

2. The horizontal jumps events must include a mechanism for a video review of fair/foul jumps at the toe board. This can be as simple as placing a phone/iPad/GoPro or other camera on a tripod, pressing play at the start of the event, and only stopping to review if a jump is protested.

3. In laned track events, any two steps on the inside lane line at any point during a competition, including across multiple rounds of the same event in a meet, must result in disqualification.

The current NCAA rule on lane infringement is slightly looser, disqualifying competitors only for two consecutive steps on the inside lane line. There are other nuances to lane rules but two steps versus two consecutive steps is the crucial issue here.

USATF’s aim, Nussa says, is “to be completely inclusive to any and all meets that want to opt in and follow the World Athletics and USATF rules. But ultimately that’s up to the meet. If [meet management] — for whatever reason — doesn’t want to follow the World Athletics or USATF rule book [for some of the meet’s events], they can exclude those races [or field competitions] when they put their event onto the Calendar.

“So you could have an entire track meet, or you could literally just say, ‘We’re gonna put the long jump on the Calendar and that’s it.’”

Why, though, would coaches at a Conference championships, say the SEC, agree to a new-to-that-arena, tighter set of rules that could lead to losing a team title through a lane disqualification that would not have been cause for a DQ under NCAA rules?

Why would university athletic directors accede to a coach defying the NCAA rule and bylaw mandating adherence to the collegiate federation’s own rules?

It needn’t come down to that says Vin Lananna (see sidebar).

Jordan Carpenter is the coach on Boston University’s staff who directs the Terrier program’s slate of indoor meets featuring world-class distance races on its speedy oval. As one of the first collegiate meet directors to inquire about WA’s new policy, he admits getting answers took time. In the end, though, with USATF guidance he got BU’s meets sanctioned at a cost somewhere between $3000 and $5000. Carpenter’s efforts predated initiation of the USATF endorsement program in late January.

“Then,” Carpenter says, “they talked us through the rule changes. Essentially, they said, ‘You need to do a shoe check to be compliant’ so we’re checking spikes and things like that.

“We don’t need to DQ people in terms of the NCAA, but in a secondary set of results that we’ve sent to World Athletics we do need to DQ if we see people wearing Vapor Flys [road shoes prohibited for track use under WA’s rule], for example.”

Carpenter also instituted video recording at the board for long and triple jump.

“So these were the few things,” he says, “and those were easy and doable for us — not really a huge cost component, just some policy things that we needed to add.”

With the “new world” ushered in for the U.S. sport in such haste, there is no guarantee that additional rules conflicts to work around won’t be identified. But the hope among all involved is this won’t be the case.

Qualifying marks to this summer’s USATF Outdoor Championships must come out of meets following WA/USATF rules and on the Global Calendar.

However, that stricture will not be in place for this month’s USATF Indoor. As Nussa points out, “It’s a unique situation in that the window for qualifying to Indoors opened on January 01 of last year before this Calendar requirement was put into place.

“So the timing is unique for this one. But what we’re really pushing toward, the biggest thing we’re concerned with, is the fairness of the sport. We want everybody to get into USA’s on a level playing field, whether that’s shoes or lane violations.”