Level the Playing Field

Orleans’ career was admirable, but the Ivy League should contemplate change

If you’re a female student athlete, you’ve most likely enjoyed the positive influence of Jeffrey H. Orleans, executive director of the Ivy League. And if you’re a Harvard football player, you may or may not have grumbled at his push for a post-season embargo on your team. Yet, after 14 years at the helm of Ivy League sports, Orleans announced last week that he will be stepping down in June of 2009. Orleans is a distinguished figure, and we can admirably reflect upon his successful tenure and its accomplishments. At the same time, however, we are excited at the opportunity for change that a new executive director can bring.

Orleans took groundbreaking steps to improve college life and college athletics. His brainchild, the Title IX legislation mandating equal funding for women’s and men’s sports, is arguably the crowning achievement in a career dedicated to enhancing the quality and opportunities of the collegiate experience. Since Title IX, participation in women’s athletics in American colleges and universities has increased by over 400 percent. Harvard’s teams alone can attest to the popularity and prominence of female athletes (just ask the reigning Ivy League women’s basketball champions or the women’s hockey team, which is headed to the Eastern College Athletic Conference semifinals this weekend). Although not without its critics, Title IX was an overwhelmingly positive step toward a more egalitarian and exciting athletic landscape.

Orleans was particularly well-known for placing an utmost priority on cultivating the “student” in student-athletes. He staunchly supported a restriction upon Ivy League football teams that prevents them from competing in post-season playoffs. For Orleans, the Ivy League represents a special case among collegiate conferences in which the rigor of academics makes an extended season too costly for the learning environment. While this is a laudable stance to take in the name of preserving the strength of academics, in practice it is blatantly unfair.

The inconsistency in the fact that 40 Harvard sports teams are eligible for post-season play and only one is not speaks for itself. While the case can be made that the size of the football team, its intense nature of commitment, and its broad appeal to fans could merit special treatment (or in this case, exclusion), these arguments are weak and unsustainable. Surely, the commitment required to play on an athletic team far outweighs that of most other extracurricular activities, but to place a sort of achievement cap on the football team alone is unfair. Plenty of Harvard students can vouch for the fact that their extracurricular obligations place a greater burden on their studies—but no one is telling a Phillips Brooks House Association volunteer or a Crimson Key comper when their hard work must come to an end for academia’s sake.

University President Drew G. Faust will sit on the committee to select a replacement for Orleans. We hope that she and the selection committee will urge Orlean’s replacement to lift the ban on the football playoffs in the name of equality. The possibility of a playoff berth will inspire and motivate our already-strong football team. In addition, it could increase student spirit and involvement beyond merely The Game. Though we admire and appreciate Orleans’s egalitarian accomplishments and concern for student well-being, we look forward to further positive changes that the next Ivy League executive director has in store.