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Jaffe: Capital One Cup is bad news for Stanford

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During your first week at Stanford, you learn a lot about the place—the names of the freshman dorms, the amazing research opportunities, the craziness of LSJUMB (and what LSJUMB stands for), the Nobel laureate professors, the extracurricular activities offered on campus and the mind-blowing things your fellow classmates have already done while you were just struggling through AP tests.

What you might not learn unless you are a) an athlete, b) an avid college sports fan or c) a loyal reader of The Stanford Daily, is the unprecedented success of Stanford sports. While other articles can delve more deeply into the specific triumphs of Stanford athletic teams (such as the 34 consecutive years with an NCAA championship), I want to focus on a particular award: the Directors’ Cup.

The Directors’ Cup is an award somewhat unknown to most people outside the Bay Area, and that is not surprising considering how long it has been owned by Stanford. The purpose of the Directors’ Cup, which is given annually by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), is to honor the school with the best overall athletic department in the country. If this seems like a big award, it should. The best overall athletic department in the country should be a fairly important title.

Unfortunately, the award does not get close to the recognition it deserves, and much of that can be attributed to Stanford’s dominance. The Directors’ Cup, which was originally called the Sears Cup, was first awarded in the 1993-94 season. Stanford finished second in the nation that year, losing only to the University of North Carolina. That performance was an all-time low for the Cardinal, though, as Stanford has won the award all 16 years since. Just think about that for a moment: every year for over a decade and a half (almost as long as this year’s freshmen have been alive), Stanford has had the best athletic department in the country, and for the last few years it has not even been close.

Because the Cardinal has been so dominant in the Directors’ Cup standings, other schools try to find ways to make their athletic programs look superior. They talk about who wins the so-called “big sports,” which is code for football, and claim that Stanford would trade all of its Directors’ Cups for one BCS title. While this argument is untrue to begin with (Stanford prides itself on having a broad-based athletics program), it has also lost much of its impact as the Cardinal football team has gotten better and better (see the 10-touchdown performance against Wake Forest).

With few remaining options for knocking off Stanford as the best athletics program in the country, the NCAA took a drastic step—it made a new award. The Capital One Cup will debut this school year, and its website states that it “annually awards the best men’s and the best women’s Division I athletics programs.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So if this award is so similar to the Directors’ Cup, how will it avoid the same dominance by Stanford? Well, while the purpose might seem similar, the Capital One Cup made some subtle changes that seem engineered to keep Stanford from winning every year. One clear difference is that the Capital One Cup has separate awards for men’s sports and women’s sports, while the Directors’ Cup combines the two. Stanford has a very strong women’s program (its 39 national championships are the most in the country), and it has sometimes carried the men’s program in the Directors’ Cup standings.

The main way the Capital One Cup directly hinders Stanford’s success is by its tiering system. The Cardinal traditionally does the best in sports such as tennis (35 national titles between men and women) and water sports (29 total in swimming, diving and water polo). Every sport counts equally in the Directors’ Cup, so Stanford’s depth gives it an advantage, but the Capital One Cup rewards certain sports more than others. The tiering is done very nebulously; the website claims that the tiers are “based on fan interest, school participation and other factors.” This essentially means they were created arbitrarily, and there is no doubt that the tiers hurt Stanford’s chances.

Tier 3 sports count the least in the Capital One Cup formula, and they include many that Stanford is a traditional or current power in, such as tennis, golf, cross country and rowing. Meanwhile, Tier 1 and Tier 2 sports include football, men’s basketball and lacrosse, which are all sports that are unlikely to give Stanford many points. Tier 1 sports count for three times as much as Tier 3 sports, and Tier 2 sports count for twice as much as Tier 3 sports, making a baseball or football title count triple.

With this formula, Stanford still has a great chance at the women’s award, because the Tier 1 sports of softball, volleyball and basketball are all successful Cardinal teams. However, there does not seem to be much of a chance for Stanford to overcome poor showings in the top men’s sports, even if it wins multiple national titles in lower-tiered sports.

While there is no way of knowing how much Stanford’s 16 straight Directors’ Cups influenced the decision to create a new award, the Capital One Cup undoubtedly puts Stanford at a disadvantage, particularly for the men’s award. And although the Directors’ Cup was a great achievement for Stanford, it only consists of a trophy, whereas the new Capital One Cup will give $200,000 to both winning schools. Moreover, the Capital One Cup has already received more publicity than the Directors’ Cup ever has, and it will be awarded on national television at the ESPY awards.

An optimist might say that a new award like this will only bring more publicity to schools with great depth in their athletic departments. The cynic in me sees an award whose board is made up of people from schools like USC, Alabama and Ohio State, which are traditionally very good at the high-profile sports (that happen to be worth triple in the Capital One Cup) and less so at the lower-profile sports.

The Stanford fan in me only sees an award designed, as board member Lisa Leslie said, to “see some other schools getting in there.”

Jacob is looking over his shoulder, making sure the big, bad people at Capital One aren’t coming to get him too. Tell him he’ll be okay (or to watch out) at jwjaffe@stanford.edu.