“Playoffs? Don’t talk about — Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?”
This quote was famously first uttered by former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora after his team began the 2001 season with a lackluster 4–6 record. Today, these words could function, perhaps more appropriately, as the motto for Ivy League football.
As the Yale football team prepares for the advent of the 2017 season with hopes of erasing the memory of last season’s 3–7 record, it will have to do so yet again without any prospect of qualifying for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs — as will all seven other Ivy League football programs.
Forget record, national ranking or victories against other playoff teams. There will be no postseason football. Now, you may be wondering: if Ivy League teams compete at the Division I level, but still wouldn’t stand a chance against the likes of Alabama, why would they compete in the playoffs?
Instead, the FCS, formerly known as Division I-AA, is home to programs not quite large enough or competitive enough to compete at college football’s highest level. Every year a champion is crowned in a 24-team playoff partially aired on ESPN. Many opponents on Ivy League schedules — including Colgate, Lehigh and Maine, three teams Yale has beaten over the last two years — routinely compete in the tournament. Moreover, the Ivy League has perennially placed programs in the top 25 of the FCS final rankings: in 2015, Harvard and Dartmouth finished No. 20 and No. 23, respectively. This past May, a Fox Sports article ranked the Ivy League as the ninth-best conference in the FCS — ahead of four other FCS conferences which field teams in postseason play.
If not for competitive disadvantage, why doesn’t the Ivy League oblige?
The answer lies part in hypocrisy and part in nostalgia. Since excusing their conference from postseason play in 1945, Ivy League officials have consistently pointed to the importance of academics and the tradition of the Ivy League as reasons to stay home from postseason festivities.
The former is based on the idea that the FCS tournament interferes with final exams and reading week. But the fact that all other sports in which Yale competes send the Ivy League champion to postseason play and the fact that sports such as men’s and women’s lacrosse have postseason tournaments that directly conflict with finals render this argument both irrelevant and hypocritical.
The latter is based on the good ol’ nostalgic view of the Ivy League. On one level, I have nothing against this. The rivalries between Ivy League programs create a rewarding experience for athletes, students and alumni alike. The Harvard-Yale football game is irreplaceable, and its traditions and tailgates are one of the most anticipated events for fans from New Haven to Cambridge.
Recently, however, The Game has been slightly anticlimactic, and those at Yale and Harvard who favor skipping playoffs because of the regular-season finale’s prestige have an outdated, inflated view of Ivy League sports.
Save last season’s thrilling victory by a Yale team that entered with a 2–7 record, Harvard has won nine out of the last 10 outings. The Game is also frequently irrelevant when determining an Ivy League champion. Over the past 10 seasons, Brown, Dartmouth, Penn and Princeton have combined to win at least a share of the Ivy League title 10 times. Even if the Ivy League football champion is crowned at the conclusion of the Harvard-Yale battle, The Game still signifies no real victory in the realm of actual FCS football — a right reserved for playoff participants.
The Ivy League needs to revisit its policy on postseason football. Hiding behind hypocritical excuses of academic conflicts and a nostalgic lust for a Harvard-Yale victory representing an elite accomplishment in college football can continue no longer.
Competitive athletes strive for greatness not just within their particular conference, but also across their level of play, and playoff competition brings this reward with plenty of added exhilaration. Ivy League football players arrive early in the summer for two-a-day practices, battle a grueling regular-season schedule and participate in yet more spring practices during the offseason.
Depriving football players of a playoff experience isn’t only taking away a privilege given to virtually all other Ivy League athletes. It also neglects the fact that competitively, Ivy League football deserves to be included.
Nate Repensky is a senior in Silliman College and a former member of the Yale men’s hockey team. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .