Saved By the Bell: Despite Principles, Identity Crisis Lingers

Harvard Athletic Director Robert L. Scalise took the podium at the symposium held at the Murr Center on Friday and proudly recounted Harvard’s men’s basketball history. Despite decades of Penn-Princeton dominance, the list wasn’t as short as one might have guessed (a la the pamphlet of Jewish sports legends in the movie Airplane).

Still, to anyone who frequents Lavietes, the greatest moments must have seemed dishearteningly distant. The last team the Crimson faced in the NCAA tournament was NYU, almost 60 years ago. It might as well have been the University of Gondwanaland.

Even Penn and Princeton’s brief annual appearances on CBS belie the fact that they, too, are but blips on the big sports radar. If, as panelist and Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan suggested, tournament teams can be likened to different types of marathon runners, the Ivy League representative is the disciplined amateur—noble in his pursuit but stunned with a result any better than a good solid effort.

Thus the ostensible focus of Friday’s panel discussion, where the Ivy League should fit in today’s changing athletic landscape. And while all three panelists missed numerous opportunities to comment at length on the league’s direction, author John Feinstein addressed the matter most directly in the early-going.

“There is the question of whether Harvard fits into the NCAA and bigtime athletics today,” Feinstein said. “The answer is no and you should be damn proud of it. Because you don’t want to be part of that universe.”

Feinstein, of course, should know something about that universe. He followed Bobby Knight and Indiana around for a year in order to write his celebrated A Season on the Brink and has covered college sports for ages. He also has the tools for drawing contrasts, having spent time chronicling the Patriot League and the Army-Navy rivalry for other projects.

And the contrasts are there. Schools in the Texas-Miami orbit have athletes who never see class after frantic pushes to break 800 on the SAT, belong to utterly corrupt conferences (SEC football, anyone?) and basketball teams that don’t graduate half their players. The Ivy League does not.

“Any team that wants to make the Sweet Sixteen has to make a deal with the devil in order to get there,” Feinstein said.

The Ivies don’t, so the Ivies don’t. Seems simple enough.

In fact, it’s a somewhat incomplete outlook. One can look at this clear-cut dichotomy between the evil, winner-take-all world of college sports and the Ivy League bubble and assume that the Ivies’ competitive philosophy boils down to a noble, sustained mediocrity. It would not be true. In reality, the conference is very much at odds with itself, its constituent parts seething and struggling within the competitive barriers that the league’s own noble bargain has erected.

Put simply, people here want to win. Coaches want to win. They want to win under a different set of rules than the ACC does, a nobler set, but they want to win nonetheless. Players want to win. They want more moments like women’s basketball’s upset of Stanford in the first round in ’98. They want baseball to make the College World Series one day and football to be able to prove itself beyond Harvard-Yale if its season has warranted it. They want basketball to make the NCAAs and win longer than anyone expected them to, just as Princeton did in 1998, and when they do, they don’t want to treat it as a marathon runner’s pleasant surprise. They want to do it again, top it. If players and coaches and the athletic department didn’t—if they were truly content to settle for mediocrity—they’d be pretty lousy in their respective roles.

No, Mr. Feinstein, the Ivy League does not want to be part of that universe. It’s a league with a conscience. But it probably wouldn’t mind visiting the nicer parts of that universe every so often. To what degree must great taste and less filling be utterly irreconcilable?

The barriers erected by the Ivy Agreement and the spirit of the scholar-athlete are subject to interpretation, just as the definition of a college is, and as a result an unusually well-publicized debate rages. Do you cut down on athletic recruiting? Do you limit practice schedules? Do you look at subsets of people purely as admissions numbers? Does taking steps—any steps—to do well necessarily entail selling one’s soul? And so on.

No, Mr. Feinstein, the Ivy League does not want to be part of that universe. But considering the suddenly critical role of the schools’ presidents in deciding all this, it isn’t sure exactly what balance it does want, either.

At one point on Friday, the panelists reflected that if the league so desired, it could very easily become a hub for big-time athletics as it was at the birth of college sports. Becoming a league full of Stanfords could be as easy as setting up athletic scholarships and lowering admissions requirements to the point where Penn and Harvard could very well meet in the Elite Eight.

It would be that easy.

The league does not want this and, as Feinstein noted, should be damn proud of it.

But what the Ivies actually do want seems far from settled and far from simple.

—Staff writer Martin S. Bell can be reached at