Bob Scalise rarely gives interviews. The Harvard athletic director is a busy man, and speaking on the record isn’t usually on the top of his priority list. But when given the opportunity to discuss the Ivy League’s eligibility policies, he takes it. These rules define the Ivy League, they add to the conference’s uniqueness—and they’re complicated.
But before we can discuss wrestlers deferring enrollment to train while attending a community college down the street, hockey players managing to graduate years older than they could have, and team leaders deciding to disappear for a year to maintain their eligibility, we need to start with Scalise.
His is one of a row of offices on the Murr Center’s third floor, protected from the hallway by a secretary. Scalise sits behind a clean desk, a large whiteboard behind him. It’s filled with three columns of buzzwords: diversity, gender equality, and the like. The room feels set up for office hours in William James Hall, and Scalise fits easily into that scene. He has the gray hair and quiet, didactic tone any casting director would look for in a Harvard professor, but the scene falls apart when you turn to the window. Harvard Stadium looms outside. The Horseshoe grandstands once hosted 57,166 spectators, which would rank in the top 50 for college football stadiums today—more than Oregon or Stanford’s stadiums hold.
Seeing the Stadium’s curved rows—which appear endless from Scalise’s close vantage point—reminds you that he is not a professor. Instead, he oversees the country’s largest athletic department, which boasts 42 teams.
Still, he plays the academic well. Soon after I sit down, Scalise has already jumped back to 1954 and the Ivy League’s decision to drop out of the college sports arms race, an explication that’s part of a 500-word response explaining why the Ivy League is the only Division 1 conference that prohibits traditional “redshirting.”
Elsewhere in the country, athletes who sit out most or all of the games for a season are given another year of athletic eligibility. They can then stretch their four years worth of academic requirements over five years, or enroll in graduate school while being on the team for a fifth calendar year.
At many schools, freshmen are told by their coaches to take this route. Football teams redshirt swaths of players to create cadres of fifth-year seniors who have already graduated, and are, to some education watchdogs, worryingly professional.
The Ivy League, representing itself as a bastion of amateurism, has largely avoided this trend.
The long and short of it, Scalise says, is that Harvard and the other Ivies want their athletes to have the same college experience as every other student—and that means not extending their stay on campus for athletic reasons.
“While winning is great—and we all like to win—we are really educators,” he says. “If you measured success solely by winning, maybe you are missing out on something [by not redshirting], but that’s not what we are all about.”
But if you walk out of Scalise’s office, descend the stairs, hang a couple of lefts, and walk onto the turf of the Stadium—observing things from the ground level and without the idealistic tint of Scalise’s window—you might find other viewpoints.
It’s simple, really, and entirely unsurprising: athletes want to play.
On many teams across the league, players work with the system to get the most out of their four years of eligibility. Some might do it to improve their professional prospects, but most are simply looking to be more competitive, help their team, and play the game they love for a little bit longer.
Cornell wrestler Dylan Palacio was labeled a “walking sound-byte” by the Big Red’s athletic department website last spring. As he explains why his school’s wrestling program is “lightyears ahead of any other [Ivy] school,” the reason becomes clear.
Palacio claims that Cornell has won the last 12 Ivy titles (the longest active streak in the League) largely because of a community college known as TC3.
Two years ago, before attending Cornell, three future Big Red wrestlers took classes at Tompkins Cortland Community College, which has a branch in Ithaca. They earned credits in difficult classes and wrestled three times a week at the same facilities Cornell’s team uses, setting themselves up for academic and athletic success the following year. Two of the wrestlers earned All-American status, while Palacio himself fell just shy. Palacio adds that all three made the NWCA’s True Freshman All-Academic Team, too.
“I feel so lucky to be a part of TC3 and the system and how much it really benefited me as a person and as an athlete,” Palacio says.
While the thought of running these athletes through a local community college might prompt questions, Cornell coach Rob Koll says it’s just a cheaper alternative to the more traditional post-graduate year taken after high school at well-known prep schools.
He also said he doesn’t see a downside to taking that year. The team gets four years of a more developed athlete, the school gets a wiser student, and the student-athlete comes in better able to take advantage of his four years there. For Koll, the only negative is the extra year of tuition.
Koll’s son is even doing something similar, taking classes part-time at Cornell while living off campus. He’ll attempt to join the Big Red squad next year with four years of eligibility remaining.
Harvard’s credit transfer policy is more strict, making that system less viable, but many Crimson athletes still seek out a year of development before coming to Cambridge. Football coach Tim Murphy says he helps connect roughly two players a year with prep schools that will help them develop academically and athletically. Former athletic director John P. “Jack” Reardon ’60 says this tradition dates back to the 1930s, if not earlier.
Reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Zachary B. Hodges ’15 went through just this system, taking a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy. The extra time, which he used to bulk up and perfect his understanding of the game while studying, has helped him reach as high as second place on a list of 236 linebacker draft prospects for the National Football League.
Meanwhile, for basketball, one campus has become the standard layover destination for players in the Ivy League: Northfield Mount Hermon.
Two years ago, Harvard sophomore Zena K. Edosomwan ’17 enrolled at NMH for a post-graduate year and won a national championship playing alongside two current Yalies, a Princeton player, a current Penn commit, and other Ivy hopefuls. The school has also trained future Dartmouth players. Before Edosomwan, Laurent A. Rivard '14 and other Harvard players came through NMH.
Talking before the start of this year's season, Edosomwan said he now sees the benefits in spending that year in western Massachusetts. For one thing, many of the teams he faced that year boasted five-plus Division-1 recruits, meaning he’ll have totaled five years of upper-level competition by the time he graduates. What’s more, Edosomwan learned to find his role on a talented team and even goes so far as to claim the year was more beneficial than a redshirt year at Harvard would have been.
Not yet being at Harvard kept him hungry, Edosomwan argues. He says he can imagine that students who have already made it to their dream school might get complacent—he, on the other hand, had to keep working.
After a year at TC3, Palacio had a similar feeling, though the "walking sound-byte" expressed it a little differently.
"I felt like a hamster running on a treadmill," he says over the phone, explaining the metaphor he has used before. "The cheese was always in front of me; I just had to make it happen. It wasn't all me. It was all thanks to TC3. I can't even in a sentence explain how grateful I am to every single person I met there."
Men’s hockey co-captain Kyle A. Criscuolo ’16 doesn’t have the same professional prospects as Hodges, but he too entered college later than normal, spending an extra year at prep school and then competing in a junior hockey league for one season.
Criscuolo says about half of his teammates also spent a year in juniors before joining the Crimson. And a good portion of those guys had already committed to Harvard, Criscuolo says. They didn’t need the competition to show off for college scouts but instead used the year to better prepare themselves for collegiate competition.
For Criscuolo, that meant adding 10 pounds to his 5’8” frame.
“You don’t want to go into college and be behind the eight-ball,” Criscuolo says. “So I think all the guys find it helpful to take the extra year.”
Back in Scalise’s office, the athletic director expresses concern about the possibility of kids taking this post-high-school year if they were also allowed to spend five years in college. “Then you get an instance where you are having people graduating much older than they are graduating right now,” he explains.
“That’s why there is this big ruckus about hockey and people coming to school as hockey players—not at Harvard but at a lot of other places,” Scalise continues. “When Yale won the national championship, they were a little older. It raises a little bit of an eyebrow and a red flag.”
When Yale won the 2013 national championship, none of its seniors was younger than 23.
Harvard’s case is less extreme, but multiple freshmen on the hockey team will still turn 20 during this season, and the number of junior-league graduates is even higher on other Ivy rosters. Only two Cornell skaters have a school listed as their “last team” on the roster.
Non-Ivy schools rely on the junior leagues to develop players as well.
“There is really no redshirting in hockey because of the juniors,” former Princeton defenseman Matt Farris explained to The Daily Princetonian. “The level of competition and development is high [in the junior leagues], so the players can give big dividends to their college teams right out of the gate. It is our unofficial redshirt program.”
Having equally developed players has helped the Ancient Eight stay nationally competitive on the ice. Earlier this month, Harvard beat and tied top-10 Boston College and Union College, respectively.
The other established method for maximizing an athlete’s four athletic seasons is the leave of absence.
The Ivy League is the only conference to not allow a standard redshirt: sitting out all of the games for a season and stretching the four years of allotted athletic eligibility and four years of academic requirements over five years.
Instead, students must complete four seasons in eight academic terms, meaning they have to leave school for a term if they want to compete in an extra season.
Ivy League Assistant Executive Director for Compliance, Governance, and Championships Megan Morrison explains the rationale behind the rule: “The philosophy behind the Ivy League rule boils down to not allowing student-athletes to intentionally delay their graduation for athletic reasons.”
Harvard administrators defend the rule by arguing that spots in their selective schools are in demand, and therefore athletes should not be allowed to hold one of those spots for an extra year for athletic reasons.
And yet, Ivy players hungry for more competition have often found ways to earn a coveted fifth year by taking a leave of absence.
Columbia basketballer Alex Rosenberg, for instance, recently withdrew after suffering a foot injury, giving up on classes in which he was past the midpoint so that he could be a part of the basketball team for four full seasons.
“It’s part of the fabric of our institution, and I’m sure there are multiple reasons that that’s the way that it’s been and the way that it is,” men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker said of the rule in a press conference last week.
Amaker turned down an interview request on the issue.
From a basketball standpoint, he continues, he would love for Harvard to have the same rules other schools do because it would mean another year of eligibility for a player like senior center Kenyatta A. Smith ’15, who has struggled with injuries.
“But that’s never been the way that we’ve operated, and we recognize that we’re different. We have different beliefs and perspectives and philosophies, and it’s been very healthy for us for the most part,” he says.
Some outside critics, though, find the rules odd and out-of-date. Discussing Rosenberg’s decision, Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Eisenberg wrote that the Ivy rules are “archaic” and “ill-conceived.”
The rules, though, are more friendly to players on other teams. Athletes in sports that span just one semester (football in the fall or lacrosse in the spring, for example) can play five athletic seasons in eight academic terms by taking one offseason off.
Before leaving campus, they must file a waiver to the Ivy League office, ensuring they still have a season of athletic eligibility remaining. That’s the process wide receiver Joseph R. “Ricky” Zorn III ’14 went through.
Years after suffering a season-ending injury as a freshman, Zorn filed the necessary waiver his senior fall and then left campus. Before making the decision, Zorn talked it over with his coaches.
Zorn recalls that Murphy, the football coach who took a fifth year during his time at Springfield College, told him about the personal benefits he reaped from taking an extra year. It’s the same message Murphy gives to anyone who asks about taking additional semesters, whether or not they are an athlete.
“I tell my own children this and I tell players this: if you have an extra year, in my humble opinion but completely sincerely, you’re crazy if you don’t take it,” Murphy says. “The real world is great, but it’s nowhere near as great as college.”
Murphy, during his time at Cincinnati University, was one of the coaches who redshirted scores of players in order to benefit the program long-term. But he says the Ivy rules largely get it right, limiting the opportunity to injured players who must leave school for a semester.
During that time off, Zorn went home to Texas and worked in a Boston law firm instead of experiencing a traditional senior spring. “That was difficult,” Zorn says of leaving school, though he was able to participate in commencement ceremonies.
After returning to the team, Zorn got hurt again, and he has not seen the field since. Yet, he is still glad he came back for a fifth season and does not regret the choice.
“While it did stink to not be here for senior spring, it was also kind of nice to be able to take a step back from school for a little bit,” Zorn says. “That’s helped me in my studies this year.”
But Zorn was more skeptical about the league’s other quirk, saying “it’s kind of weird that you have to be injured to be able to have this redshirt year.”
Twenty-eight Harvard students applied for waivers last year, making up a large portion of the just-over-100 applicants around the league. Only 16 applied this year, which falls more in line with the league average.
It didn’t take an injury for Patrick Hogan ’15-’16 to decide to leave school just over a year ago. He spent last year training at Cornell and in Colorado Springs. By leaving before enrolling for his junior year, he maintained his athletic eligibility and came back a better wrestler in his estimation.
“I thought that having an extra year of training under my belt, getting a bunch more matches in, would make a big difference on my wrestling career,” he says. “There’s not really a lot of opportunity to wrestle after college...so you might as well do everything in your power to make sure you can be the best that you can be in the time that you have left.”
Hogan says he would have preferred to train at Harvard, but the rules do not allow it. He adds that leaving for a year was beneficial for him, and he would make the decision again because “you get another year to play the sport that you love.”
That’s what he told the two wrestlers who are taking this season off.
But the rules prohibit other athletes from taking their ideal routes through the University.
Men’s hockey players who get concussions early in the season, for instance, have limited options. At other schools, they could just sit out and retain a year of athletic eligibility to use in a fifth academic year, but Harvard’s rules do not permit that choice.
Athletes in this situation can either sacrifice a year of eligibility while healing on the sidelines or drop out of school to save one of their four academic years. Leaving involves sacrificing nearly a full term of academic progress.
“Obviously you want to play the four years, and you don’t want to be leaving school,” Criscuolo says, “But how the rules are set up, that’s how it goes.”
The policy, in combination with the fact that the conference does not allow graduate students with eligibility remaining to compete, also slows some students’ academic progress.
“If I’d gone to another school and wanted a fifth year, I feel like I would’ve wanted to stay in school and continue on with school,” Zorn says of not being able to complete his college education in four years and enroll as a graduate student during his fifth season. Murphy, by contrast, was able to enroll in a graduate program during his fifth year.
Andrew Van Nest ’12 transferred his fifth season of eligibility to Boston College, where he earned a graduate degree while playing basketball.
Van Nest says he was able to continue his basketball career in Europe largely because he played that extra year in college, but he adds that he understands the Ivy League’s policy to prohibit graduate players. He also says the Harvard program does not lose much by not having fifth-year guys on the roster since Amaker develops talent so well.
Koll, the Cornell wrestling coach, says he has lost wrestlers to Lehigh, Holy Cross, and other schools that allow students to use their final year of eligibility while enrolling in graduate school.
He has also seen athletes sometimes decide not to accelerate their graduation dates because they want to play out all of their eligibility at Cornell.
Students hoping to take a semester off and return with the same amount of eligibility must meet with Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67, the University’s faculty athletic representative, before leaving campus.
Dingman’s office is best described as some combination of a coastal bed and breakfast and the Oval Office. Even early in the morning, Dingman’s trademark enthusiasm is evident.
He explains that he was put in this position after the league’s presidents became concerned about the number of athletes competing in a fifth year. To address the situation, they appointed Dingman who ensures that each athlete both comes to the decision to leave without excessive coach influence and has substantive plans for their time away.
This overlaps with Dingman’s primary role as the overseer of freshman life on campus. Freshman athletes are one of the biggest groups affected by Harvard’s lack of redshirting, and Dingman says playing so soon after setting foot on campus presents challenges.
“It’s hard for freshmen,” Dingman says. “We got some people who are used to competing at a high level and maybe putting in as many hours as they do here, but there are a whole lot of people for whom it’s a big step up. And then to do that alongside with four courses is a challenge. It’s hard to do other extracurricular things, for instance.”
“Sometimes those people are phantoms in entryways,” he explains, “which is really too bad.”
Back at Cornell, Palacio, a wrestler who also plays for the school’s soccer team, has seen some freshmen struggle if they did not take a gap year.
“It’s so hard for them, and I think their athletic performance shows,” he explains. “When the freshmen sometimes feel overwhelmed about how many practices they have, it affects their soccer, and that’s a real shame.“
Freshmen used to be prohibited from playing on varsity teams before the NCAA eliminated the ban in 1972. The Ancient Eight criticized the change and kept freshmen teams, especially for major sports, but only for a time. In 1977, the league agreed to allow freshmen to play basketball after teams lost recruits to competitors without “the freshman rule.”
Freshman football teams lasted longer, but they too were gone by 1993. Former football coach Joe Restic said at the time, “We're concerned about the academic side—as I'm sure everyone else in the league is.”
In the 20-plus years since, the debate about freshmen playing has largely disappeared. Yet the effects on Harvard’s youngest athletes remain.
“[A freshman team] was much more forgiving so that if you’re having trouble getting used to the rigor of college, you could take Tuesday afternoon off,” Dingman says. “Whereas varsities, I think, it’s harder to do that.”
And whereas elsewhere in the country, overwhelmed students might be able to delay their athletic eligibility and stretch out academic requirements with a redshirt, that is not a fallback at Harvard. Instead, Crimson freshmen must get the most out of a quarter of their time with the team right away.
Even if you would never use your redshirt year, Palacio says, it would be comforting to know you have it to fall back on if you want to slow down and figure out “the question we all want to answer: What are we doing here?” he says. “It’s hard to figure that out and thrive in your sport and be a great student.”
“You’ve got kids who are supposed to become masters of their destiny and know exactly what they want to do,” he adds, “when two months ago they were asking permission to go to the bathroom.”
The first words on the Ivy League’s rules page indicate the tall task the conference hopes to accomplish: mitigating the conflict between academic and athletic pursuits.
“The basic intent of the [Ivy League’s] original agreement was to improve and foster intercollegiate athletics while keeping the emphasis on such competition in harmony with the educational purpose of the institutions.”
Scalise echoed this idea last year while speaking to The Crimson: “Since the beginning of intercollegiate sports there has always been a question of the balance of athletics and academics at institutions like Harvard.”
Though the University fosters sports with institutional support, it also puts strict rules on participation. In many cases, administrators have stuck to the goal of treating athletes exactly like other students—expecting them to contribute as soon as they get on campus and assuming they will move on once their fourth year is over.
Athletes, though, make other plans.
Scalise preaches the maturing powers of athletics. It presents an unparalleled opportunity for education, proponents say, and creates bonds other student groups cannot replicate. If that is true, it makes sense that players like Nicholas J. “Nick” Burrello ’15 would do everything within their power to stay with the team for as long as possible.
A senior defensive back who plays only sparingly, Burrello is currently going through the application process to miss his senior spring and return for one more fall.
"There is nothing like coming back for another year with your boys, another year with your brothers working every day," Burrello explains, sticking around after practice last week. "It really stinks because what happened was I took last season off because of a concussion. I was out the whole season, and it was difficult because it was hard with a concussion to be down here everyday, so I was apart from my family and I was missing a part of me. It made me really realize how much football meant to me and even more importantly how much the brothers on this team meant to me.”
Burrello says finding something to do this spring will be difficult, but he is excited to explore the real world and then come back.
"A lot of people are like, 'Hey, you are giving up your senior spring, do you really want to do that?’ And my answer is ‘Absolutely,’" Burrello says. "Having the chance to come back for another fall and playing football is something that is so special that it's hard to explain to somebody else who really hasn't been through the process before.”
“We preach 'Crim Family,'” he explains, “and that's just something I couldn't get away from—missing out on a year of that is just something I didn't want to do."
Burrello adjusts his shoulder pads. The sun has already set on the November evening, but the Stadium lights shine all around him. Most of the players have run off the field by now—hurrying to take exams or watch films—removing their uniforms to tackle the next thing in their lives.
Burrello is happy to stick around a little longer.