Plain and Simple, The Ivy Playoff Ban Is Discrimination

Harvard Swoosh Shirt

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — I’ve been writing about FCS football in one way or another for more than ten years, and one of the subjects that comes up for discussion about once a year in the offseason is the decision of the Ivy League not to participate in the FCS playoffs.

 

This year, the latest article talking about the ban came from the latest issue of the Harvard Crimson, titled “Ivy League Remains Absent from Expanding FCS Playoff“.

 

Since the Ivy League chose to reclassify to I-AA back in the early 1980s, the Ancient Eight has chosen, for “traditional reasons”, to decline participation in the FCS playoffs.

 

But let’s call the ban what it really is – discrimination.

 

 

Though winners of 11 conferences, including the Patriot League, earn automatic bids to the field, the Ivy League continues to decline a bid.

That means that no matter how well an Ancient Eight team plays during the regular season, its year will come to an end a month before that of its elite peers.

The conference is one of just two FCS leagues to opt out of the playoff—the other being the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which instead splits its members into divisions and plays a conference championship game of its own.

As an explanation for this ban on postseason play, Ivy conference administrators cite concerns about both tradition and academics, noting that the playoff—which begins the weekend after Thanksgiving—could interfere with reading period and finals.

Denied the opportunity to test themselves against the nation’s best FCS squads, teams like the 2004 Crimson—which finished the regular season as the nation’s only undefeated FCS team and was ranked No. 13 in the country at year’s end—must be content with only winning an Ivy League championship.

 

In five compact sentences, the Crimson sums up the situation, and the ridiculousness, of the Ivy League’s self-imposed postseason ban.

 

The Ivy League could choose to participate in the FCS playoffs if they so desired, but do not, citing some “concerns” about academics and “tradition”.

 

What it should really be called is discrimination.

 

“Discrimination is the prejudicial and/or distinguishing treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category, in a way that is worse than the way people are usually treated,” reads the Cambridge Dictionaries Online definition.

 

It’s easy to prove that the powers that run the Ivy League treat football differently than their other sports in a way that is worse than the way their other sports are treated.

 

Does the Ivy League prevent any other of their NCAA-sanctioned sports from playing in the highest level of NCAA-sponsored championships? No; only football faces discrimination in this area.

 

Is the Ivy League’s stated concern about academics valid when it comes to football? Perhaps; but similar concerns that could be raised for other sports are conveniently ignored.

 

And does “tradition”, represented by the 1945 Ivy agreement itself, say that Ivy League football teams should not play in the postseason? A fresh reading of the Ivy agreement itself shows the answer to that is a resounding “no”.

 

*****

 

In 1945, eight Northeastern-based elite institutions of higher learning entered into a signed “football agreement” which was the basis of the founding principles of the Ivy League.

 

It was a landmark document, purposefully separating the “Ancient Eight” from a college football landscape that was concerning the presidents of the eight schools at the time.

 

Later it would expand competition to all collegiate sports, but the original agreement – available in PDF form by the University of Pennsylvania – originally applied only to football.

 

For many, many years, it was stated, without much opposition, that the words in the original Ivy Agreement stated that the original Presidents did not want Ivy League athletics to participate in any sort of postseason.

 

Reading the actual document, however, shows something different.

 

The members of the Group shall not engage in post-season games or any other contests designed to settle sectional or other championships. (NOTE: National Collegiate Athletic Association, Eastern College Athletic Conference, A.A.U., competitions and international competitions such as the games, meets and matches with Oxford and Cambridge Universities shall not be considered as post-season games or contests within the meaning of the above rule.)

 

In other words, there are no postseason games allowed – unless, of course, they would affect men’s basketball (AAU games), wrestling and hockey (ECAC), rowing (lucrative Oxford/Cambridge competitions) or.. anything else (NCAA Championships).

 

Think about this a second.

 

The Ivy League presidents purposefully wished to define postseason games as “sectional or other championships”, which can only mean one thing – football bowls, and nothing else.

 

After all, when you take away AAU games, NCAA championships, international rowing meets and ECAC wrestling meets and hockey games, what, praytell, is left?

 

At that time, many bowl games at the time took place in the segregated Jim Crow south, where African-Americans couldn’t stay with white teammates and couldn’t eat in the same venues in many cases. There were very good moral and ethical reasons for banning postseason bowls in that era – and it actually something that is worth commending – the Ivy League didn’t succumb to segregationist money.

 

But football has changed immensely since 1945 – breaking into Divisions I, II, and III, and subdividing Division I into Bowl Subdivision and Championship Subdivision, not to mention that it has evolved into a much larger business than folks even back then might have been able to imagine. And Jim Crow laws, of course, are a part of the past that is thankfully dead and buried.

 

When the Ivy League decided as a league to compete as a I-AA conference instead of a I-A conference in the early 1980s, not every conference was entitled to an autobid to the I-AA playoffs, though it seems likely that the Ivy League could have easily had one had they simply asked for one, even back then.

 

Why didn’t they ask for one, even though FCS is the highest level of football championship sanctioned by the NCAA?

 

Easy – discrimination by the Ivy League presidents.

 

While all other Ivy League sports compete for NCAA championships, the so-called principle of their ban on football’s FCS playoff postseason games was based on the fact that there is another Division I subdivision that is considered “higher” than I-AA, called the I-A.

 

But that simply isn’t, and never was, technically true. In 1983 as today, Harvard, Alabama and Lehigh all compete at the “highest level” of collegiate athletics, called Division I, and the schools of FCS compete at the “highest level” of sanctioned football championships.

 

Sure, Alabama played against Notre Dame this season for a crystal trophy, but that’s the very definition of an “other championship” as defined by the original words of the Ivy agreement.

 

“National Collegiate Athletic Association… competitions… shall not be considered as post-season games or contests within the meaning of the above rule.” It cannot be any more clear than that.

 

Yet Ivy League executive commissioner Robin Harris, in the Crimson piece, brings out the old chestnut on playoff participation as to why their ban persists.

 

“Other commissioners would love to see the Ivy League be part of the playoffs, but they understand it’s a long-standing traditional decision,” said Robin Harris, the Executive Director of the conference. “They would love to see us and they mention it occasionally, but they understand that we’re not participating.”

 

Football is the only sport in which the Ivy League declines to compete for a national title; in all other NCAA-sanctioned sports, the Ivy League allows their athletes to prove themselves on the national stage for NCAA championships, from hockey to track and field to wrestling to lacrosse.

 

In no other sport are these words interpreted to mean that their intercollegiate teams cannot and should not compete in the FCS postseason. Only football.

 

It’s this “traditional decision” – that’s explicitly contradicted by the original Ivy agreement itself – that keeps the football teams away from the Division I football postseason.

 

Or you could call it by its real name. Discrimination.

 

*****

 

Aside from the fiction that “that’s the way the founders wanted it”, the other popular canard floated by the official defenders of the Ivy League policy is upholding the ban for academic reasons.

 

At Ivy League schools, exams are so tough, so the excuse goes, that football players can’t possibly compete for a national championship and take exams at the same time.

 

Certainly, many Ivy League championships don’t occur during exam season. Unfortunately, lacrosse is not one of them.

 

Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States. It is also a sport where the Ivy League is every bit as competitive as teams from the “big money” conferences, such as the ACC (Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse) and, starting very soon, the Big 10 (Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Ohio State).

 

It’s also an area that former Ivy League executive director Jeff Orleans and current director Robin Harris have made a priority for the Ancient Eight.

 

One of the Ivy League’s founding principles – again, lifted directly from the Ivy League agreement – is not hosting post-season conference tournaments:

 

Schedules in all other sports shall not be made prior to December of the college year preceding that in which the schedules will be played.

 

This language has been interpreted over time to say that any game that cannot be scheduled in advance – i.e. a postseason tournament pitting 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. – should not be done.

 

(It’s been a considerable source of consternation for basketball fans, who have been clamoring for a postseason tournament for years. The Ivy League is the sole holdout in Division I for a postseason basketball tournament.)

 

Another was the prohibition of sponsorship:

 

In conformity with customary practices of other academic officers, coaches shall not endorse commercial products.

 

These founding principles, for decades, had not been taken lightly at all by many members of the Ivy League.

 

In regards to lacrosse three years ago, however, these principles were conveniently swept aside when the opportunity came for the Ivy League to sponsor its own Lacrosse tournament.

 

“We are delighted to have this opportunity to showcase our very strong men’s and women’s lacrosse teams,” Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans said in a press release. “And we’re also pleased that we can avoid deciding our automatic bid recipient through a tiebreaker formula if we have regular-season ties, as often has been the case.”

The move to add a postseason Ivy tournament, which was initially conceived two years ago and has been in the planning stages ever since, comes at a time when Ivy lacrosse, especially on the women’s side, has seen increased success on the national stage and in the NCAA Tournament.

According to Princeton men’s lacrosse head coach Bill Tierney, the ability of Ivy teams to compete and win in the tournament made a strong case for adopting a formal system of determining the Ivy League’s tournament qualifiers.

“It’s to highlight a sport that’s been very successful,” Tierney said. “If you look at national championships in team sports in the Ivy League, there aren’t that many sports that have been able to do what lacrosse has done. It’s a sport that’s been good to the Ivy League, and the league’s been good to it. It’s a win-win situation.”

“We are so thrilled to have Champion athleticwear present our inaugural men’s and women’s lacrosse tournaments,” said Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris. “We appreciate Champion’s support of Ivy League athletics and look forward to a great partnership.”

“Champion is pleased to be the presenting sponsor of the inaugural men’s and women’s lacrosse tournaments,” said Claire Powell, Director, Champion Brand Marketing. “Lacrosse is an important part of Champion’s rich heritage, and we are committed to supporting the growth and success of this exciting sport.”

 

The Champion deal – reportedly worth $100,000 – allowed the clothing company to produce TV broadcast of the championship as well, to be broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks.

 

Which would be fine – unless you use the Ivy principles to justify a policy of discrimination towards other sports.

 

In truth, many of the Ivy principles have been whittled away over the years. Freshman on intercollegiate teams was, at one time, banned; it was the first to go, followed by the ban on postseason tournaments, followed by marketing.

 

What could be the final blow to the original founding principles – in all sports except football, anyway – is some of the latest apparel coming out with Harvard’s logo, complete with the Nike Swoosh.

 

Perhaps not-so-curiously, when it comes to that founding principle, the presidents are eerily silent even though as 1997 Harvard magazine was celebrating its lack of qui pro quo in regards to purity in dealing with clothing manufacturers.

 

That many NCAA postseason tournaments interfere with final exams (not to mention graduation) at most Ivy League schools really completes the picture – yet Ivy League athletes, except football players, of course, still participate.

 

The Crimson piece says it’s routine for most Ivy scholar-athletes to schedule around their respective NCAA postseasons.

 

Earlier in May, for example, the women’s golf team traveled to its NCAA Tournament, which took place during the spring reading and finals period. Players were often required to take finals early in the morning before heading out to play a full tournament round of golf.

“I found it pretty difficult,” said freshman Christine Lin, who took an exam at 8 a.m. in the coaches’ room of the Stanford Golf Course, where the Crimson was competing. “On the one hand I really wanted to play well in golf, but I also had my exam to focus on…. It was pretty hard to split the difference and switch my focus from one to the other.”

Lin says she already finds it challenging to balance athletics with academics while at Harvard, and asking students to take exams on the road makes it “10 times as hard.” But despite the difficulty involved with the process, Lin says she does not support the Ivy League banning postseason football due to academic concerns.

“Athletes are recruited to play for the school in their sport,” she said. “I’m not saying academics aren’t important, [but] I feel like it can be scheduled around.”

Andy Nguyen, co-captain of the men’s tennis team—which also recently returned from an NCAA Tournament that took place during reading and finals period—agrees, saying that taking exams on the road “wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“The academic officials are really accommodating,” explained Nguyen, who took a take-home test while at the tournament in Mississippi this year. “They understand we’re students first.”

 

And yet, football players don’t get a chance to play a NCAA tournament game on Thanksgiving, when no exams are held, because academics might suffer?

 

Tell me again – how is this not discrimination?

 

*****

 

The Ivy League principles are sarcosanct, is the message from the Ivy League presidents.

 

Except if they apply to, well, any sport except football.

 

No other NCAA-sanctioned tournament is declined by the Ivy League leadership.

 

The Ivy League presidents choose to ignore the principles regarding sponsorship and postseason tournaments, when the situation is right.

 

Other sports don’t only have apparel deals – in express violation of the original Ivy agreement – they have entire postseason tournaments sponsored by apparel companies.

 

Other sports have their own academic officials to help them navigate the highest level of NCAA competition, allowing them to take exams on the road in the middle of national competition.

 

Yet when it comes to football players competing for an NCAA-sanctioned championship, it’s all about the intent of the 1945 agreement – which even specifically stated that NCAA tournaments are a not a part of the ban.

 

The continued policy of the Ivy League against postseason football participation isn’t “tradition” or the protection of the academics of the football players.

 

It’s discrimination, pure and simple, and ought to be called as such, until this unfair, unjustifiable ban against their own athletes from participating in an NCAA championship is lifted.

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