Ivy Presidents Listen Up: Football Needs Playoffs

It wasn’t always this way.

The Game wasn’t always The End.

In 1952, the Ivy League presidents decided to abolish athletic scholarships and spring practices. They also prohibited teams from competing in postseason football games. Harvard would never again have the chance to repeat its 1920 campaign, in which it went 9-0-1 and defeated Oregon 7-6 in the Rose Bowl for the last of its nine national titles.

I am not suggesting that we need to put Harvard back in the Rose Bowl. In fact, barring a complete change in the Ivy League’s attitude toward its football programs, the 1978 decision to split Division I into I-A and I-AA will keep that from ever happening again. However, I am demanding that Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League let its players compete in the Division I-AA playoffs. I’m also demanding that we give our students and our fans a reason to care.

Ten years ago, the Ivy Council of Presidents determined that in order for our football teams to remain competitive, the Ivy League would have to re-institute spring practices. Now, it’s time to end the ban on postseason participation.

Penn or Princeton advances to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament every year. Harvard stunned top-seeded Stanford in the 1998 NCAA women’s basketball tourney. Why do we let the best teams in every sport save football compete for the ultimate prize?

According to an article that ran in the Daily Pennsylvanian on September 18th, Penn President Judith Rodin claimed that a football postseason would conflict with finals. She’s partially right. If the Ivy champion advances to the semifinals of the I-AA playoffs, that team will be playing football during the exam period for schools with pre-Christmas finals. But, as the article cites, the same situation exists for the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament, and the Ivy Council of Presidents has no problem sending the league champion off to compete in that playoff bracket.

In fact, the two situations are amazingly similar. Both tournaments would require that the team make the semifinals before there would be a conflict with finals. For some reason, we let the volleyball team duke it out and send the football team back to class.

In the same article, the executive director of the Ivy League Council of Presidents Jeff Orleans says that finals aren’t the issue. Instead, Orleans believes that after careful consideration “there was a general consensus that [competing for the Division I-AA title and not an all-encompassing Division I title] is not necessary.” In other words, the Ivy presidents believe that competing for a Division I-AA Championship is beneath them.

And why should they? They get everything they want out of our football players during the Ivy season. The presidents have no motivation to send 70 kids to Montana for a playoff game. That doesn’t draw alums to Harvard Stadium, where—overcome by nostalgia—they decide to give copious amounts of money to pad our cushy endowment. In the end, the ban on the I-AA playoffs seems to be more of a business decision than a decision based on concern for our players. That’s probably why the presidents—not the athletic directors—have the final voice on this issue. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the presidents would claim that the I-AA title doesn’t matter.

Later in the article, Orleans responds to comments that the ban discriminates against football players and that participation would result in a better national reputation for the Ivy League.

“Those folks who want to go into the playoffs cite those possible reasons,” Orleans said. “We happen to feel differently.”

By “those folks” he means the coaches, the athletic directors—who are paid to make athletic decisions—the fans, the media that follow I-AA football, and the NCAA in general. By “we,” he means the Ivy presidents. The presidents are sticking by their decision, and they don’t care how many people disagree or how strong their arguments are against the policy.

For proof of their obstinate behavior, I recall an article from the Cornell Daily Sun that ran nearly 18 months ago. According to the article, Princeton football coach Roger Hughes had an interview with outgoing Princeton President Harold T. Shapiro. In that interview, Shapiro told Hughes that there was no logical reason for the postseason ban and that the presidents just didn’t want Ivy League teams participating. It seems the presidents gave the Ivy playoff decision about as much thought as whether to have steak, pheasant or duck for lunch.

Is stubbornness the Ivy presidents’ only argument? In a desperate search for something more, I contacted Orleans.