FOOTBALL '09: Patriot Games: Scholarships Pose Threat to the Ivy Way

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Ann H. Forman

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Imagine, for a second, that instead of traveling to Holy Cross tomorrow to watch Harvard take on the Crusaders, you were one of over 30,000 fans packing into a maximum-capacity Harvard Stadium as the Crimson kicked off its season against a major-conference team, say, Boston College. It’s a pleasant thought, but the reality is far more complex.

Fordham’s decision in June to begin awarding football scholarships starting with this year’s recruiting class piqued the interest of a lot of people in the Ivy League football community. The move shows a changing mentality in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division 1-AA), which includes the Ancient Eight.

“It’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on because if they go scholarships—we’re talking about the league now—it will change dramatically,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy says. “The last time any Patriot League school had scholarships in that league was Holy Cross in the ’80s and ’90s. They dominated Eastern football at this level in a way that wasn’t seen before and hasn’t been seen since.”

The Patriot League, which includes full members Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Lafayette, as well as football-only members Fordham and Georgetown, is the conference most akin to the Ivy League and—since its establishment in 1986—has emulated the Ivy League philosophy regarding academics and athletics.

“Our tradition and our history is to be need-based or need-limited in our awarding of financial aid, similar to the Ivy League,” notes Patriot League Director of Athletics Carolyn Femovitz. “However, the Patriot League in general has moved to scholarships in other sports...So the conversations have evolved over time in different ways on each of our campuses about whether or not...awarding scholarships in football would be appropriate for us to do as well.”

And though the Patriot League is far from making a decision across the board regarding scholarships, the reasons seem clear for the personnel at Fordham.

“We’re really being squeezed—all the Patriot League schools are being squeezed from two ends,” says Fordham Director of Athletics Frank McLaughlin, who was Harvard’s men’s basketball coach from 1977-85. “One is, you can’t get anybody away from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or the Ivies. You know, with Harvard, Yale, Princeton increasing their aid packages, I think you’re going to see a tremendous boost across the board athletically at all three schools. And then the Northeast Conference, the Monmouths, the Wagners, Central Connecticut and stuff, they’re giving scholarships.”

True, Harvard’s increased financial aid package may offer a benefit equivalent to that of athletic scholarships at other schools, but the perks of offering formal athletic scholarships extend beyond being able to recruit better athletes.

According to NCAA legislation, Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly Division 1-A) schools are permitted the opportunity to schedule one FCS opponent a year and count that contest as a bowl-eligible game—if the FCS team offers 57 athletic scholarships on average over the previous two years.

“That’s how they looked at it,” Murphy says of Fordham. “The going rate those schools will give you to play, probably the median is somewhere around half a million dollars. So if you can know that you’re going to get half a million dollars with one FBS game, then you can make the numbers work.”

So with its sister conference seemingly headed down a path towards athletic scholarships, is the Ivy League close behind?

“It will never happen in our league, and it shouldn’t,” Murphy says. “It’s not appropriate, because every kid here has something a little bit special about them. I think while in a certain world you might think that might be great for Harvard football, I think anything you do to try to distinguish athletes as being different from other students would not be a good thing.”

The Ivy League’s resistance to handing out athletic scholarships is motivated by the conference’s understanding of its unique role in collegiate football. According to Murphy, the Ivy League is clear in its pursuit to educate those who deserve it most, whether it’s on the field or in the classroom. And by extending financial aid to a young person who’s intellectually curious, not just because he can kick a ball through the uprights from over 50 yards out, the Ancient Eight is continuing its long-standing tradition of asking more from its students.

But if the Patriot League does step up the quality of its recruits, then necessary alterations will inevitably have to be made to Harvard’s non-conference schedule.

“We’ll have to adjust for sure,” Murphy admits, adding that the decision to schedule Fordham in an upcoming season was made “before we knew they were going to scholarships.”

Despite not being a viable candidate for any FBS opposition, Harvard is looking to make the most of its non-conference schedule.

Realizing the nationwide clout that the Harvard name carries, Murphy is looking to expand the field of competition beyond the Northeast for alumni- and recruiting-related reasons. The University of San Diego is just one of the many new names on the Crimson’s upcoming schedule.

“Southern California’s become such a big Ivy League recruiting area,” Murphy says. “California in general—and not just for football, but for all sports, for the general student body. We’re also going to be down in D.C. against Georgetown. Those are games that make sense to us, even though they might cost a little more in terms of travel.”

So it appears that a matchup with the cross-town Eagles remains just a pipe dream, and a cross-country battle against the Toreros will have to suffice. But when the Ivy League was established in 1954, the Ancient Eight presidents set clear standards regarding the nature of athletics in their schools. For now, at least, it seems those philosophical ideals will remain intact.

—Staff writer Dixon McPhillips can be reached at fmcphill@fas.harvard.edu.

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