Embrace Debate: How World Athletics’ Rankings Weigh College Meets

By Kyle Merber

June 15, 2022

The NCAA Championships is the best meet in the world that never features a single professional athlete. So you better believe the CITIUS MAG group chat was alive this Monday morning with a debate about the merit of the World Athletics rankings weight of college meets. The NCAA Track and Field Championships are labeled as category B and the SEC Championships are a category F. Please enjoy this minimally edited conversation between myself, David Melly, and Mac Fleet. May it spark a similarly heated debate in your various text groups, as well.

David: Can we talk about how World Athletics rankings are biased against the NCAA? The NCAA 100m champ is currently ranked 109th in the world.

Mac: It shouldn’t be scored equally but I guess if you want to stir the pot…

Kyle: Should I write about it this week?

David: People have talked about it before but it’s probably worth revisiting. It’s crazy how low things like SECs and Drake Relays are weighted.

Mac: NCAA athletes are protected against having pros enter their meets — it shouldn’t be equal.

David: Is there a middle ground between equal and 109 though?

Mac: I’m for anything that separates collegiate athletes and pros, even to the detriment of the college athletes. Go pro if you want a higher point score. Stay in the NCAA if you want to win NCAAs.

David: Coffee Club talked about how in tennis they care a ton about world rankings but no one’s aware of it in track. They were saying that if people cared it would be interesting in a race like Pre to know how Olli’s performance affects his world ranking. I don’t necessarily think we’ll ever care about rankings the way we do in tennis, but I think we’d take them a little more seriously if shit like this didn’t make their credibility a total joke.

Mac: I disagree completely that it’s a flaw in the system. The NCAA is basically its own league that has protections that only go one way. NCAA athletes can enter any meet they want around the world, but pros cannot enter SEC’s.

David: I agree on the diagnosis of the problem but I think it’s easier to fix the rankings than the NCAA rules. Because when the 109th ranked guy makes the world 100m final that’s either a huge upset (it’s not) or the ranking system is useless for following the sport (which is my vote).

Mac: I know it’s not the same thing because a 100m FAT time is the same thing everywhere, but if you look at it like a “performance” you shouldn’t be able to equate the stakes of NCAA meets to professional ones. Like, if someone scores 80 points a night in the G-league, that shouldn’t equate to anything in the NBA because they aren’t actually playing against NBA players

David: If we think the world rankings will help us follow the sport better/increase fan interest in the regular season (which I’m generally skeptical of but that’s what Coffee Club was arguing), they need to reflect the reality of the current landscape. Post-season NCAAs is deeper in sprinting than the Diamond League, and to not acknowledge that in how we rank people undermines the credibility of the ranking system entirely

Mac: I get that track is way more of a fluid sport with this stuff and the points SHOULD be different in some ways, but it does succeed at rewarding people for continually competing in the Diamond League, which is what fans should want

David: I don’t think those are entirely antithetical positions. I just think the current system does a good job at promoting one interest — head-to-head racing — and a terrible job at the other — telling us who’s the best.

Mac: I don’t disagree but the NCAA doesn’t run the DL or WA.

Kyle: It sort of comes down to what’s the purpose of the rankings: to force athletes to run the meets we want or to tell us who the best athletes in the world are? In reality, the top 10 athletes in each event don’t need to worry about what races they do because they’ll qualify for the World Championships with ease regardless of how many points they get from meet status.

David: In a perfect world it does both. And in a hypothetical future where rankings carry a lot of weight and even potentially contract money is tied heavily to ranking, it should be heavily weighted toward pushing top athletes toward the same races. But in the current reality it’s a joke because it doesn’t accomplish the latter goal at all

Mac: Who gets hurt by it are people like Cole Hocker, when he had to get in on points last year.

Kyle: I think, in theory, Mac’s thought process is the correct one. But in practice, David has a strong point.

Mac: I think it does a good job at pushing pros to those meets. The top NCAA athletes are still there because they’re trying to get contracts, not because they don’t want to go get points. So there’s that element too. Joe Fahn would’ve been in Rome if he didn’t have NCAAs.

David: The problem with Mac’s position is that to perfectly execute it, we either have to care a lot less about global championships or not let NCAA athletes go to Worlds/the Olympics. Because in the current system you basically have a unique phenomenon where a standout NCAA point guard could somehow be in the NBA final if he’s good enough and that makes no sense if we try to apply that to other sports. And good luck to anyone carrying the mantle of “actually we shouldn’t let NCAA athletes go to the Olympics.” RIP to your Twitter mentions!

Mac: Yeah I do actually think that only NCAA champs should get into USAs. But that’s beyond what we’re talking about.

(Editor’s note: Mac won two NCAA champs which may influence his opinions)

Kyle: Well now we are just talking about the fundamental problem of the sport — are you willing to sacrifice fairness of opportunity that ensures all the best runners are on the same start line once a year in exchange for making the sport easier to follow and more entertaining? There may be some better F1 drivers out there that don’t get one of the 20 spots on the start line.

David: Do you fight for the achievable incremental improvements in a broken system, or try to burn the whole thing down knowing you probably won’t succeed but could make things much better if you do? A question which could be about gun control or World Athletics rankings.

Kyle: Like, should you vote for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders?

Mac: Those are 100% not all the best drivers in the world. I really do think it’s worth some of the unfairness to try and make the sport more entertaining. The athletes in the NCAA are choosing to be there and can leave at any time.

Kyle: Am I going to get angry emails if I include a single political reference in my newsletter?

David and Mac: Yes.

Kyle: But this was just an organic text conversation that I am now deciding to print — surely people will understand that and forgive me?

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.