December 6, 2020

KEMPFF | Antiquated Ivy League Rules Rob Student Athletes of University Careers

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Jimmy Boeheim ’21 should have been the Ivy League dream. Towering over his peers at 6’8,” Jimmy always knew he would play college basketball. His arrival at Cornell seemed like a fairytale; he was the first recruit of the new head coach and quickly fell in love with both the campus and the team. 

His story follows a now familiar one: A promising junior season was cut short by the COVID pandemic. However, the National College Athletic Association extended eligibility for all college athletes by a year. If he wanted to play, he could. Right?

Not so fast. 

The Ivy League Conference Board has long operated by an archaic league rule: All athletes must be undergraduates that graduate both the university and their sports teams within a (generally) four year window. In enforcing this mandate the Ivy League seems hellbent upon robbing student athletes of their undergraduate athletic careers.

Most Division One colleges permit athletes to compete as a graduate as long as they still have NCAA eligibility, competing four seasons within a five year time frame. This allows students time to recover from injuries that jeopardize their athletic career. It also means masters students are eligible to play. Athletes can graduate on schedule (or early in some cases) without fear of losing their team spot.

The Ivies, however, forbid graduate students from competing. In a conference that already reeks of elitism, this restrictive rule is especially unfair in a pandemic year that stole multiple seasons from athletes. After speaking to dozens of them, a single answer was heard: It’s time for a rule to change.

Jack Malone ’23 is a hockey player who opposes this out-of-touch mandate. He explained, “If you want to graduate after four years you have to transfer to a non-Ivy League school to be a transfer and play.”

Jimmy has always been interested in obtaining a master’s degree while continuing to play the sport he loves. He’s a government major, which has a graduate program at Cornell. Yet, he’s forced to, as a rising Senior, put his name in the NCAA transfer portal, in the hopes he can earn his masters degree at another school while still playing basketball.

So, what’s the purpose of this rule? After reaching out for comment from both Ivy League and Cornell Athletic Administrators, I received no comment. Their reasoning might be based in placing an emphasis on academic performance. The Ivies have always had high academic standards. Many student athletes relay that their team leadership pushes a dominating mantra: Prioritizing athletics over an education is wrong. 

Yet, Lily Zelov ’22, a member of women’s squash, reminded me that “everyone is pressured to graduate in four years. Since we’re on track to graduate within four, it makes more sense for our future job security to complete our degree and try to get a masters at Cornell.” These academically minded student athletes, however, face a barrier in the form of the Ivy Leagues’ outdated mandate.

So, what does it mean to be a graduate student?  It’s no different than being an undergraduate. Just one year removed, these students are under similar social, financial and scheduling constraints as their undergraduate teammates. Zelov explains that “being a graduate student is wildly arbitrary. Anyone can take a year off, train intensely, then come back as an older junior or senior. Graduating and then competing doesn’t give anyone an unfair competitive advantage.”

The Ivy League system permits students to take semesters off (which a number of undergraduate athletes consider) instead of graduate early and pursue a masters degree. It’s punishing some of the brightest minds by restricting their ability to graduate by limiting their playing time. 

Harry Fuller ’21 is a soccer player who is taking credit next fall to maintain his undergraduate status in order to escape the misguided thinking of the league. Upperclassmen are being put in a “vicious” position steeped in immense sacrifice. They are being asked to “suspend (their) job ambitions and not be at school during (their) senior spring” in order to continue playing the sport they love.

Although a COVID exception for the class of 2020 and 2021 seems more than fair, Fuller thinks this rule change should extend to future students. “If I was robbed of my last season because of COVID, it’s no more unfair than being robbed of your season because you’ve blown out your ACL in your freshman year. I can’t see why COVID would receive priority over someone having a season preventing injury.”

Jimmy loves Cornell; he even convinced his younger sister to attend. And he wants the chance to spend another year in Ithaca. However, he won’t be able to do so if the rules stay the same. With every year that the Ivy League retains this antiquated rule, Cornell will lose some of its most promising talent to other schools, and with it money, prestige and a wealth of other benefits that student athletes bring to the university.

COVID hasn’t been easy on anyone. Ivy League athletes have already suffered more than many, as their seasons and college careers are halted while most of the NCAA returns to some form of competition (for example, the men and womens’ hockey teams both entered the winter 2019/2020 season ranked first in the nation). In this financially difficult and stressful time, the ancient eight have an opportunity to treat their athletes more fairly: Allow them to compete as graduate students. 

It’s time for the Ivies to give athletes like Jimmy a shot. Allowing a first year Government masters student at Cornell to play basketball does not sacrifice integrity; it emphasizes it. The Ivy League needs to stand for its athletes and allow graduate students to compete.

Brendan Kempff is a sophomore in the School of Hotel Administration. He can be reached at [email protected]. Slope Side runs every other Monday this semester.