April 22, 2005

State of the Ivy League Part II: Solutions to the Problems

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This column is the second in a two-part series examining the state of Ivy League athletics.

Any one of the 218 Ivy League head coaches can tell you that his or her job is quite different than just about every other Division I head coaching job in the country. Each one of them works in a conference that for years has straddled the line between the high standards and expectations of a Division I program, while at the same time adhering to the principles and ideals germane to the Division III athletic ideology.

As the characteristics of Division I performance and Division III sensibilities become increasingly divergent, though, the league must adapt. Ivy League athletics face several challenges that are critical to the long-term success of the conference. Paramount among them is fan interest.

With few exceptions, attendance at Ivy League events has steadily decreased over the space of several decades. Because the conference’s eight member institutions are lucky enough to not be in the position of depending on gate receipts at sporting events as a primary stream of revenue, this is a concern that has been successfully avoided for quite a while. But in the Ancient Eight, intercollegiate athletics serve a much greater purpose than simply as a means for generating profit. College sports serve the interest of a complete education for the participating athletes, the preparation for life envisioned by the Ancient Greeks.

They also serve the interest of community-building for the non-participating spectators, a purpose that is absolutely critical to the success of an academic institution. This effect has clearly gone by the wayside. At this stage in the Ivy League’s history, it is imperative that the League’s presidents take steps to reaffirm their commitment to a conference that will remain the standard by which college athletics is judged for many years to come.

First among these steps, the presidents must publicly and affirmatively provide support to their respective institutions’ intercollegiate athletic programs. Cornell has been fortunate in that respect. President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 and former President Hunter R. Rawlings III are both passionate sports fans. Both saw the benefits that successful intercollegiate teams can provide to a university. With that knowledge, both helped to create an atmosphere conducive to a successful department.

Not every member of the Ancient Eight has such a smooth working relationship. The recent unrest at Dartmouth regarding the relationship between the athletic department and admissions dean Karl Furstenberg is evidence of this. While it seems that any conflict between the two sides has now been resolved, episodes such as that only fuel the perception that intercollegiate athletics is systematically marginalized within the conference.

Thus, it is important for each of the schools to develop relationships built on common interests, on an understanding that the product set forth by varsity athletes can be as valuable — if not far more valuable — to the collegiate community as the product set forth by any other student in any other non-academic endeavor. Only then can the Ivy universities begin to reap the rewards of athletics as a community builder.

Additionally, it may be time to revisit the question of awarding scholarships, not just for athletes, but for exceptional performers in every facet of university life. With the financial constraints faced by most incoming college students, Ivy League coaches are forced to focus their recruitment efforts at the very top and very bottom of the financial spectrum — they must recruit student-athletes whose families are either wealthy enough to pay tuition without assistance, or destitute enough to qualify for substantial grant and aid.

One of the Ivy League’s greatest features is that it truly is a conference built on the principles of amateurism, featuring student-athletes who are actually students before they are athletes. But reality dictates that a change in practices may be necessary.

The Ivy model of college sports pays much more attention to the personal needs of student-athletes than does any other program in the nation. Among Division I institutions, only Ohio State offers as many varsity programs as even the smallest Ivy program (Columbia has 29). More than in any other conference, Ivy League athletes are not participating in their sport in order to become a professional.

It is important, then, to ensure Ivy athletes the best collegiate experience possible. The league can better accomplish that by taking steps to become more competitive on the NCAA level.

Two significant changes that have long been bandied about by Ivy alums and supporters are postseason eligibility for football and the institution of a conference tournament for basketball. Both of these changes are long overdue and will provide a much-needed spark to the conference.

Of the 32 sports that the Ivy League awards titles in, the conference champion has the opportunity to advance to NCAA play in all but one of them — football. For years, the argument has been that postseason eligibility would interfere with the student-athletes’ exam schedules. Fair point. However, every other fall sport has its NCAA tournament at the same time — early-mid December — and exam conflicts are never raised as concerns.

The same can be said of spring sports. The Ivy League is very strong in both men’s and women’s lacrosse, both of which stage their NCAA tournaments in mid-May, smack in the middle of exams.

In 2003, Colgate’s football team advanced to the Division I-AA national title game. Colgate is virtually on par with the Ivies as an academic institution, and it’s participation in the I-AA tournament did not serve as a detriment at all to its players’ academic standing, while at the same time giving those student-athletes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play on a national stage. There is no reason to believe that such an ill-effect would occur at Ivy schools either.

The Ivy League is the last remaining conference in the country to not hold a conference tournament in men’s or women’s basketball. The concern is that if the league were to hold a tournament, it would run the risk that the best team that year would not reach the NCAA tournament, thus severely hurting the league’s chances to pick up a first-round upset. Aside from the fact that in recent years, the Ivies haven’t exactly been competitive in the tourney, a conference tournament that rewards regular-season dominance could easily be established. How about a six-team tournament that gives the top two seeds byes and the third- and fourth-seeded teams first-round home court advantage?

Such an arrangement could go far both to improve the experience of the student-athletes as well as to keep more schools in contention later into the year, thus maintaining higher levels of interest on campus.

The reality is that the Ivy League’s days as the nation’s premier athletic conference are gone. But the conference need not fade into oblivion. It still serves a tremendously valuable purpose as a member of the NCAA Division I and as an important societal institution on its campuses. If it is to continue to succeed in those missions, the league must be ready to adapt to its changing needs.

Owen Bochner is a former Sun Sports Editor and has reported on the Ivy League for The Sun the past three years.

Archived article by Owen Bochner