July 18, 2002

The Origins of The Ivy League

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When Ezra Cornell founded his University, he made a bold statement about education — the importance of combining the theoretical and the practical, the work of the mind and the work of the body.

But he could in no way have imagined the furor over the appropriate combination of academics and athletics that would ebb and flow far above Cayuga’s waters for decades.

The argument began with the first pitch in the primitive baseball games that were played in the Cornell family cow pasture, with all its attendant hazards. Organized sports detracted from a serious education, some people maintained, while the opposite camp held that a strong mind could only exist within a strong body.

As college athletics flourished nationwide in the early 20th Century, and the connection between teams’ performances and alumni contributions was cemented, real debate over the future of college athletics began.

The term Ivy League first appeared in 1937, as a New York Herald Tribune sportswriter’s designation for a group of eastern schools that traditionally met in football competitions each year.

The schools were also held in high academic regard — at least in part because they were among the oldest universities in the nation.

But the term Ivy League remained only a convenience, although some said it foreshadowed a real athletic alliance. It was not a new idea to the athletic administrators at the Ivy schools, but it was an idea whose time had not yet come. The Ivy league survived as an occasional topic of conversation and as a de facto arrangement at the schools themselves.

But the league did not become formal until November 1954, when the presidents of Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale affixed their signatures to the “Common Statement of Ivy Group Institutions.”

What had been an Ivy League for years now had an official seal.

The Ivy League distinguished itself from other schools with a few basic rules: no post-season competition (i.e. Bowl or All-Star games) and no financial aid to players except for legitimate academic or need-based scholarships.

Academic authorities had control of sports programs, and players and coaches were to participate on a recreational level, not as professional performers.

“Snap” courses were forbidden, as players were required to work toward genuine academic degrees, and players also had to make regular reports on grades and financial aid to the Ivy League eligibility committee.

There were, of course, arguments against each of these provisions. Outstanding players were denied recognition without postseason play, some said.

The 1955-56 school year saw the first formal Ivy League games in soccer, fencing, lacrosse, wrestling, squash and golf. Scheduling conflicts forced football to wait another year before beginning a sanctioned Ivy career.

As Yale athletic director Delaney Kiputh explained to Newsweek, “We have organized because we’re tired of meeting unfair competition. We want to compete with schools with similar standards.”

Dr. Grayson Kirk, president of Columbia, agreed in an interview with U.S. News & World Report. “[We] do not have an athletic program merely for the purpose of providing weekend amusement enterprises at the expense of scholastic standards.”

In Kirk’s opinion, other schools and other leagues should follow the Ivies’ lead.

The big switch to expressly favoring scholarship and amateurism over athletics and professionalism passed almost unnoticed on campus. The Sun had been calling competitions with traditional rivals Ivy League games for years, and the University always had rules governing recruiting and conduct resembling that set forth for the Ivy Group.

But it was big news to other media. Articles in various national publications worried about whether the new rules might lower the quality and appeal of games, thereby causing the league to collapse.

Newsweek declared that success of the Ivy League would rest squarely on the shoulders of alumni, who must not insist on the secret, lavish offers to athletes that were all the rage — anything for big wins.

U.S. News & World Report assured the public that despite the new “purity” rules, gate receipts showed no signs of dropping and crowds were as large as ever.

The Ivy League shrine to scholarship and amateurism finally resolved a long and lingering debate over the place of athletics within academics.


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