NCAA should stop worrying about the Ivies

Athletics have long played an important role in the collegiate experience of America’s students. Whether that role is central (as it is to varsity athletes and in movies like “Rudy” and “Blue Chips”) or peripheral (to fans and in movies like “Back to School,” “Animal House” and “Old School”) is largely irrelevant. For many — athletes and spectators alike — sports help define their bright college years.

Even when athletics are not necessarily the primary focus of one’s student career or a feature film, they still retain an indispensable prominence in the greater collegiate conscience. Just as how Thornton Melon’s climactic “Triple Lindy” dive, Otter’s tactful golf lesson to Boon and Weensie’s gravity-defying vault augment college-related movies that are not specifically centered around athletics, collegiate sports invariably play a large — if indirect — part in the college experience of those not actively participating in them.

The disclosure of a letter written by a Dartmouth administrator in 2000 earmarking football “and the culture that surrounds it” as “antithetical to the academic mission of colleges such as ours” is emblematic of a larger-scale trend among academic officers — especially those associated with Ivy League schools — to de-emphasize athletics and all of the associated baggage. Within the past three years, the Council of Ivy League Presidents has mandated a seven-week “dead time” for each varsity team during which they cannot hold sanctioned practices and has implemented new restrictions on recruiting. Both policies are ostensibly aimed toward reaffirming the preeminence of academics on campuses.

While the Ivy League currently harbors no pretensions of being an athletic powerhouse, its relationship with football still reverberates nationally. This century-plus of rich football history remains a source of pride to many affiliated with these schools, especially at Yale, where, because of Walter Camp, we can basically take credit for inventing the game itself. However, perhaps due to this symbolic import, it has also become the primary target of those desirous of refocusing the schools’ priorities.

Indeed, it was football that was most notably affected by the new recruiting guidelines, as the number of annual recruits was lowered from 35 to 30 (it had previously been slashed down from 50). And the Ivy League presidents appear intransigent on the postseason ban that perennially precludes a worthy team, such as this year’s 10-0 Harvard squad, from competing for a I-AA national championship. It’s as if by explicitly diminishing the relevance of football, administrators are making a blunt statement that nothing related to athletics is sacrosanct around these parts any longer.

The timing of the letter’s release is interesting because it coincides with attempts by the NCAA at large to reaffirm its commitment to academics. Last Monday, the NCAA moved forward with a proposal to tie athletic scholarships to academic performance. Graduation rates, the performance of individual student-athletes and a calculated “Academic Performance Rate” will now factor in to whether a school can deploy its full compliment of scholarships. According to NCAA data, a little over seven percent of Division I teams would not meet the APR criteria and over half of all Division I schools would be home to at least one team failing to qualify.

This initiative reflects the long-standing views of Myles Brand, who has long advocated creating a link between scholarships and academic standing. Brand’s two-year tenure as NCAA president has been marred by a series of gross institutional scandals, most notably those involving Maurice Clarett and the whole Ohio State football program; Gary Barnett, Katie Hnida and Colorado football; and Dave Bliss’ unsavory actions as Baylor’s basketball coach. Likely, Brand views declining academic performance as symptomatic of the flaws of collegiate athletics on the whole. Consequently, a renewed focus on academics would provide him a means to at least superficially address plummeting moral standards.

During his State of the Association address earlier this month, Brand attempted to debunk several prevalent notions about college sports.

Among the implications addressed were the idea that college sports is more about the sports than the college and the theory that the student-athlete is an overlooked pawn in the big-money world of college athletics. Brand said that student-athlete graduation rates that trump those of the general student body help quell the first misconception. But while he scoffed at the thought that college sports are only about the bottom line, he did astutely recognize that universities who see football and basketball as integral revenue streams are under increasing pressure to win at all costs and are thus more inclined to stoop to whatever level necessary to achieve that end.

It would be naive to think that money doesn’t have its place in Ivy League sports, especially in football, which is still each member school’s athletic cash cow. But if profit margins contingent on winning games really were an indispensable factor, you have to think there would have been more of a popular clamor to address the head coaching position here after four straight losses to Harvard and five consecutive years without a conference title. Compared to schools like Florida and Notre Dame that pulled the plug on reasonably successful coaches this autumn after only three seasons each, Yale is simply not subject to the same forces that prompt such quick reactions.

Dartmouth Admissions Dean Karl Furstenberg did not limit his critique to football, citing “other sports in which the same [cultural] phenomenon is apparent.” But in the face of the problems plaguing collegiate athletics at large, the crusade that the eight Ivy League institutions appear to be on seems frivolous. Any proposal relating to athletic scholarships is irrelevant to schools who offer no such thing to begin with, and it’s also unlikely given the nature of the schools themselves that any great number of teams would fail to meet whatever criteria is established.

When 10 of the teams involved in the 2003 men’s basketball Sweet Sixteen failed to graduate half their players within a six-year span (spearheaded by Oklahoma graduating exactly none of its “student”-athletes), there is cause for concern. When the Dartmouth football team attracts a preponderance of student-body and alumni interest, there is not. Any extracurricular activity in which a student decides to participate here can be stifling in the amount of time and energy it consumes. Whether it be a cappella, college council or sports on an intramural level, people will inevitably find something that interests them and devote their time disproportionately to it. Varsity athletics are no different. Same as how it’s no different if a kid gets admitted because he can throw a football or because his father and grandfather went here or because he is a world-class cellist. It would be a mistake for Ivy League administrators to continue to supplement NCAA guidelines with haughty policies and statements that only serve to perpetuate an image of elitism and to dubiously create a crisis where one does not currently exist.

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