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Lift the Ivy Playoff Ban

The World Series ended last week, the culmination of a season that has been dominated primarily by the retirement of Derek Jeter.

There were a slew of commercials this year that served essentially as tributes to Jeter, including one produced by the Jordan brand that first aired halfway through the season during the All-Star game.  

In that commercial, Derek Jeter steps up to the plate at Yankee Stadium; as he sets his feet, Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester tips his cap as a mark of respect; the move spreads. An array of people—a young kid in Brooklyn, other athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, a vendor selling crackerjacks, Yankees fans of every age, gender, and race, police officers and firefighters, Rudy Giuliani, even Red Sox fans—each tip their caps.

Of course, the clip is a commercial, meant to promote Jeter’s brand and Jordan’s shoes sales. It’s all a bit hokey and rather clichéd and very much contrived. But the ad nevertheless speaks to a higher truth—it’s not simply a tribute to Derek Jeter the player, but also baseball the sport; the commercial illustrates the immense power of sports to bring together people from all walks of life.

To some, watching sports is in some ways a waste of time—after all, it is a poor source of new information, fails to increase productivity, and rarely teaches deep or meaningful lessons.

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But for others, sports provide an arena for people from all walks of life to come together and bond over a shared love. I often talk and joke with the fellow fans I sit next to at Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium. I have chatted with old men in Germany about soccer and with students in Australia about cricket. Sports provide a common language, a common experience, a common interest between people who are otherwise linked by nothing else. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

However, we lack that common link here at Harvard. At the moment, none of the primary bonds that connect students at Harvard are universal. We are united by our houses, by teams and clubs, by our classes—but these are all distinctions which we share with at most a few hundred other students. There is no thread that binds us beyond the name of Harvard itself.

And as powerful as the name may be, it’s not enough. We can be proud of the name on the front of our sweatshirts and we can respect the institution which it represents, but it is much more difficult to love a mere word or the intangible idea that inspired it. There is no focal point for us as students to center on—no tangible, physical, human embodiment or representative of the school that can serve as a common object of support and love.

The seeds for such a centerpiece already exist at Harvard. Even though Lavietes Pavilion seats only 2,195, President Faust has reportedly labeled home games at Lavietes for the men’s basketball team as “the most diverse event on Harvard’s campus.” But the student section still numbers only a few hundred for each home game; the transcendence at these basketball games only extends to those who are already interested in basketball. At its fullest potential, the football or basketball team could draw bigger, more diverse crowds, acting as a symbol of the school, one that engenders pride and affection.

There are of course reasons to be wary of an athletic department that overshadows the rest of the university; the perils of major sports at American colleges are well documented. But perhaps it is time now to lift the ban on postseason play for Ivy League football teams. Despite the consistent inclusion of the Ancient Eight’s football teams in Top 25 polls of all FCS teams—the undefeated Crimson is currently sitting at 17th in the FCS Coaches Poll—Ivy League teams have never been allowed to participate in postseason play.

Moreover the primary reasons that are cited as continued for the ban—academics and tradition—have failed to prevent Ivy League teams from competing in the postseason of other sports. In fact, the football team is the only one of Harvard’s 42 varsity teams that is currently prohibited from postseason play. Given the desires of athletes, coaches, and even the former president of Brown to see Ivy teams in the playoffs, the continued ban seems to primarily stem from the stubbornness of the current university presidents.

The benefit would extend beyond extra games for the football team: seeing those Crimson jerseys competing on a national stage can provide a sense of pride, a bond different from anything that currently exists. A part of me yearns deeply for Harvard sports teams that can inspire excitement and passion from the students, consistently fill stadiums, and unite the entire diverse student body behind a common cause. The possibility of such teams exists, particularly with football—it has the potential to be about so much more than just wins and losses for all the students at Harvard. And it is time to realize that potential. Lift the ban.

Franklin R. Li ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Cabot House.

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