There was once a time when Cornell athletics was a major student and alumni attraction on campus, with big rivalry games not only within the Ivy League, but against many major programs, like nearby Syracuse. When our students walk by Schoellkopf Field, they may not know this historic stadium once hosted the 1951 win over Michigan or running back Ed Marinaro ‘72 breaking the NCAA Division I rushing record in front of full-capacity crowds. Our alumni from the early 1970s cherish Cornell’s glory years when we won the Ivy League championship in football and NCAA Division I titles in both hockey and lacrosse.
Today, while our students might see a good crowd for Homecoming, in nearly every other game, Schoellkopf Field is three quarters empty. Even the former student section was condemned and torn down in 2016.
It’s thought that some of our faculty and administrators believe, if we’re really bad at sports, it will somehow improve our academic ranking? The national rankings, of course, easily say otherwise — as Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are all ranked ahead of Cornell, both academically and with significantly larger endowments.
Not everyone likes athletics, and I am certainly not advocating for Cornell to exit the Ivy League or become a “sports factory.” But we are still an NCAA Division I member, and I believe we should have more of a balance between academics, campus life — and sports.
In fact, the Ivy League should be the model for what college athletics is all about!
The 2010 Cornell Sweet 16 basketball team proved Ivy League athletes can compete on the national stage. Our star center Jeff Foote received Academic All-American honors and also managed to serve as a T.A. on campus. Newman Arena was packed for home games, as the skeptics were quickly proved wrong in thinking our students would never show up for the big game.
But improving Big Red athletics is not only limited to so-called ‘revenue-producing’ sports like football, basketball and hockey. Many of our women’s sports are just as exciting to watch too — which is not reflected in how the school often treats them.
For example, our 2017 NCAA tournament participant and Ivy League championship women’s lacrosse team is housed in the visitor men’s locker room at Lynah Rink. That means, every time there is a home hockey game, our women laxers have to vacate the facility.
We recently spent $61 million on the addition to Goldwin Smith Hall and yet our champion laxers change in the men’s room? There is certainly plenty of space at Schoellkopf Field to build our women’s team their own home to use during the often frigid late winter and spring lacrosse season. Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports for both men and women on college campuses around the country.
I do believe that Cornell is different from many of the other Ivies, as our student population is much larger, and the rural Ithaca campus is a four to six hour drive from major metropolitan areas in the Northeast. Ithaca is a beautiful college town, but it’s no Boston or New York City. Our distant location also makes it a challenge to attract our alumni back to campus.
We know that when our alumni return to campus for an Ivy League contest, they are more likely to network with students, or even make a gift to the Cornell Fund, which benefits the University in terms of improved financial aid and upgraded academic facilities.
However, when our football team loses 66-0 to Princeton it does not exactly motivate our alumni to open their checkbooks! While we would probably never make big returns from revenue-producing sports, improving competitiveness and attendance would certainly offset some of those expenses. Imagine if Cornell renewed the annual football rivalry with Syracuse University in front of 30,000 fans with an average ticket price of just $25? Add in television, parking, and concessions, and the game could generate up to a million dollars for just a single game.
Enough cash to build a new home for our women’s lacrosse team!
We already play Syracuse in most of our other sports, why not football? Has the Stanford vs. Cal Berkeley football rivalry eroded their academic standings? Obviously the publicity doesn’t hurt, as the Stanford website reports an endowment of $24.8 billion — four times bigger than Cornell.
Critics of my suggestions say it’s counter-productive to the central, Ivy League academic mission, and that we’re giving in to the big money temptations of athletics.
But meanwhile, the annual Harvard vs. Yale football game last year drew over fifty-thousand fans, where tickets went for as high as $125 each, generating significant revenues for their respective athletic departments.
Do we only make exceptions for Harvard and Yale, or can some of the other Ivies host their own big games and generate much needed revenue to support our athletic and intramural programs? Over the years many of our alumni have tried to improve athletics at Cornell, yet have faced significant push back from faculty and administrators who only want us to be a great research university — and have little interest in such trivial pursuits to enhance student life on campus.
Balancing higher profile athletics with top academic programs on the East Hill could improve the quality of student life and bring our alumni back to campus more often, thus increasing the university endowment.
And after a painful 66-0 loss, now’s as good a time as any.