A Critique of Ivy League Rules

Published by Andrew R. Mooney on March 09, 2012 at 10:12PM

Freshman defender Max Everson and the Harvard men's hockey team take on Yale this weekend.

This weekend, the Harvard men’s ice hockey team begins ECAC tournament play with a best-of-three quarterfinal against Yale. Should the Crimson advance, its reward is a one-game semifinal berth in Atlantic City on Mar. 16 to compete for a place in the final the following day.

As you may have noted, the usual format of postseason play—series that get longer as the rounds advance, like in MLB—is inverted here. Why, you ask? Perhaps the ECAC tournament organizers could only get away with two nights in Atlantic City before their wives got suspicious. Or maybe it’s just that Ivy sports have a bunch of stupid rules.

The reduction of the final two series to one game each introduces an element of luck that doesn’t exist in the previous rounds, diminishing the chance that the team that ultimately earns the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is, in fact, the conference’s best team. There’s something to be said for the excitement of Cinderella, but why do so only part of the time? Advantage, third-seed Harvard, but a defeat for logic.

In the women’s ECAC tournament, which follows the same set-up as the men, the Crimson was not so fortunate. After dispatching Princeton in two games in its best-of-three quarterfinal, Harvard faced off in the semifinal against St. Lawrence, a team it beat by a combined score of 13-2 in the teams’ two regular season meetings. Regulation ended with the two teams tied at one, and in overtime, the Saints struck first, advancing to the tournament final. Instead of being given a chance to equalize the series, the Crimson’s season was over. Despite losing to Cornell in the (one-game) final, St. Lawrence secured one of five at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.

This isn’t quite as bad as other Ivy League regulations, which try to straddle the line between competitive athletics and highbrow tradition. Take football, for instance. Ivy teams compete in the Football Championship Subdivision in name only; the only championship they can compete for is the Ivy title. For the Ancient Eight, playoff football against the rest of the FCS is forbidden.

Let’s consider Princeton president Shirley Tilghman’s remarks on the matter in 2006, as a group of students at the university sought to overturn the ban: “If the focus of competition became postseason play, we would inevitably lose some of that great tradition [of Ivy football].” Of course! If, by some wicked contrivance, Ivy teams were forced to compete against the unwashed masses, their own self-importance might be devalued. Imagine the annual Brown-Dartmouth battle being cheapened in some way; the 250 alumni in attendance simply wouldn’t stand for it.

Never mind that our other 40 varsity sports are eligible for some form of postseason play; we invented this sport, and we’ll be damned if we have to fight for supremacy with the Appalachian States of the world. If you look for reason in your sports leagues, I encourage you to look elsewhere.