Tradition Hinders Ivy League Football

A Few Minutes with Andy Mooney

On Monday, the Ivy League and NBC Sports Network announced an extension of their television partnership through the spring of 2014. The agreement commits the network to televising between six and ten football and men’s basketball games, and up to four men’s lacrosse games.

“We are pleased to showcase more Ivy League competition nationally to our passionate fan base which has a thirst for Ivy League athletics,” said Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris in a statement released by the Ivy League on Monday.

From the perspective of a fan of Ivy League sports, I’m pleased about the prospect of showcasing our athletes to audiences across the country. But as the league seeks out higher levels of national exposure, it appears caught between two masters: the pressure to excel as a sports conference and the pull of tradition to maintain the status quo.

Now, I would have no problem with the Ivy League remaining a small, nationally trivial sports conference if Ivy administrators truly believe their mission to be enforcing the highest of academic standards for all students. But the expansion implied by the extension of this TV deal suggests quite the opposite. And on the surface, I think that’s fine too; but if that’s really the path down which the Ivy League is traveling, it needs to discard its reliance on tradition as a primary method of determining policy.

By this, I don’t mean to denigrate the place Ivy sports occupy in history, but there’s a difference between appreciating history and blindly adhering to tradition. I marvel at the fact that Harvard played a central role in the founding of intercollegiate sport, given the place that college athletics currently hold in the national consciousness. The championship banners in Harvard Stadium, for instance, help us understand just how far sports have come in the last century and Harvard’s place in that development. Yeah, we really did win a football national title in 1919; that’s an incredible feat that I respect.

But there’s a reason we don’t do most things the same way now that we did in 1919: it was 1919. One year later, our university investigated and expelled eight students on charges of (gasp) homosexuality. I think it’s fair to say that the times, they have a-changed a bit in the interim. Using “tradition” as the primary reason for doing anything is perilous, because it implies little more than “that’s how we’ve always done it” as its justification. The passage of time should be an opportunity for evolution, not stagnation.

Which brings me to what is, in my view, the most egregious example of the Ivy League’s deification of its own tradition: the ongoing obstinacy of Ivy leadership to allow its teams to participate in the FCS football playoffs.

First, I should address the other, more practical arguments made for restricting Ivy League football play to just the regular season, which I believe are all untenable. Too much missed class time? Ivy football teams’ seasons run for 10 weeks; for comparison’s sake, Harvard’s basketball team played for 20 weeks. The playoffs might conflict with exam schedules? That’s the case for many spring sports teams, including men’s lacrosse, which this year has two Ivy teams in a field of 16 vying for the national championship in late May. The playoffs would diminish the importance of the regular season? Football is the only varsity sport for which the Ivy League has disallowed national postseason play.

That leaves us with tradition. The comments of Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman during a push for postseason play a few years ago reveal a viewpoint singularly out of touch with reality.

“If the focus of competition became postseason play, we would inevitably lose some of that great tradition,” Tilghman told the Daily Princetonian in March of 2006.

Presumably, Tilghman was referring to the tradition of maintaining the importance of intraleague play. The Ivy League championship is a prestigious honor, the thinking goes, and to set a goal above that—a national championship—would cheapen that distinction.

But what, other than the importance we attach to tradition, could possibly make a title earned against seven other teams more prestigious than one earned against 121 others? To me, this screams of the elitist, “exclusive club” atmosphere that the Ivy League is often accused of representing. Let the gentlemen have their own competition, apart from the squabbling of the masses.

Why limit the heights a team can achieve for the sake of an abstract non-reason like tradition? It’s important to understand and honor our history, but not at the cost of sacrificing the opportunity to write new chapters in the history books. Personally, I’d like to see a new banner hanging on the old cement of our stadium: 2019 National Champions.

—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at mooney@college.harvard.edu.

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