Friday, May 11, 2007

The "New" New Realities, Part I

Three months ago, I started a series of blog postings called "The New Realities" that attempted to talk a little bit about the issues facing the Patriot League and football in particular. It wasn't bad for what it was - a Lehigh perspective on the challenges of the Patriot League and a possible direction going forward.

After starting this impossible task, I quickly realized that I was tackling a subject over my own head. I had opinions on what was right, but this subject deserves a hell of a lot more perspective than that. It deserves a discussion around the league, about what is working, and what ought to be looked at again for 2007. It deserved hours of phone calls, days of research, complete looks into history - a complete job.

Without further ado, here's something that can be done in today's day and age with blogs: a relaunch of the same series I started months before - this time, only better. The "New Realities" are back, tackling the basic question: How can the Patriot League fit in a world of these "new realities"?

Part I will deal with the history of the Patriot League: where it came from, and why it evolved the way it has.

Who Are We, Really?
The Patriot League is a Division I sports league that competes in Football Championship Series (FCS, formerly known as I-AA) and Division I in all other sports. Our men's and women's basketball teams have the opportunity to play in "March Madness"; our soccer champions compete in the NCAA Championships; and so on. We are Division I, and we target athletes that can compete in Division I championships in every sport - including football, where our subdivision has the highest level of true NCAA-sanctioned football championship.

In the early 1980s, Princeton vice president Tony Maruca approached some northeastern schools who were interested in forming a conference to play the Ivy League in football on a regular basis. Folks from Holy Cross and Lehigh answered Mr. Maruca’s call, and in 1986 six academic-minded schools formed the Colonial League, a football-only conference that awarded only need-based aid and admitted athletes that were representative academically with the rest of their class. Modeled very closely after the administrative structure and admission standards of Ivy League, it had the feeling of a grand experiment with the noblest of ideals – treating their students as students first, athletes second.

Broadly, there are three key characteristics that the new league shared with the Ivy, which in a lot of ways showed its ambition to be the Ivy’s “sister league”: school presidents and admissions officers would make admissions decisions, not athletic departments; an academic index would be implemented and adhered to; and finally, only need-based aid would be offered. In 1990, these ideals would be implemented across all sports with Lehigh, Lafayette, Fordham, Bucknell, Holy Cross, and Towson (in football only). Army and Navy would be members in all sports except football, where they would remain I-A.

Presidential Control

The first principle – that presidents and admissions officers would control who gets into their schools – actually dates from the foundations of the Ivy League in 1945. Presidential control – and by extension, the structure of the Patriot League - has its roots in a sixty year old document.

Although Ivy League schools were not organized in a formal conference in 1945, many of them already played one another in football on a yearly basis. In that year, however, concerns about the general direction of college athletics (especially involving the large sums of money involved televising football) spurred the Ivy League presidents to create a landmark document that continues to the principles of balancing academics and athletics. Called today the “Ivy Group Agreement”, it set out to be more than just a series of principles that go above and beyond the NCAA’s minimum requirements: it went as far as to set up a specific institutional administrative structure for this new alliance of football teams.

(Many Ivy League idiosyncracies can be traced to this document. For example, it states that “The subscribing institutions shall not engage in post season contests or any contests designed to settle sectional or other championships.” To this day the Ivy League on principle refuses to allow its football teams to play in the FCS playoffs, even though other Ivy sports are allowed to enjoy postseason play.)

The document called for a “Committee on Administration”, made up of athletics administrators, and a “Committee on Eligibility”, made up of academic faculty members. The Administration Committee would recommend on all administration issues except athlete eligibility – those decisions would be made but the Eligibility committee. Both committees would be reporting back to the Ivy League presidents – neither committee would be working independently from one another.

This structure has allowed presidents to control the admissions process, and to cause athletic directors to not have undue influence over athletics admits. It's a system that has its advantages -- and flaws.

Academic Indexes
“Only in the Ivy League and Patriot League is there a formal system of monitoring who is admitted to our student bodies, and how they represent the student body as a whole academically. That’s not the case everywhere else,” says the executive director of the Patriot League, Ms. Carolyn Femovich. “That was the Ivy concept that we adopted to say ‘Look, we are all strong academic institutions and we believe in this philosophy of athletes having academic standards.’

“[The Patriot League] adopted the concept of an academic index as a way to standardize the admissions evaluation of athletes, and to ensure that their academic credentials were generally reflective of those of the rest of the incoming class. The academic index is a tool for measuring that, an accountability tool.”

The best way to think of the academic index (or AI for short) is just that: a tool to determine whether schools are admitting students that are similar academically to the rest of the incoming class. It’s a formula which attempts to measure an athletic recruit’s academic record, which dates from the founding of the league. Although the Ivy League's formula changed slightly in the mid-1990s, the way the Patriot League has computed its AI has remained largely the same since the league's inception.

In the Patriot League, the AI is roughly half made up of a percentage of class rank (or GPA if the school doesn’t share that information) and roughly half made up of standardized test scores. These scores are then compared against the rolling four-year average of the AI for the entire incoming class of the institution. Per sport, as long as the entire recruiting class is one standard deviation below the AI for the entire incoming class, everything should be copasetic.

Yet very recently, Ms. Femovich announced that the leagues’ AI system would be going under review. “We’ve engaged the services of an outside research entity to look at our AI, to look at it any issues. Do we have the right measures in place? Is it working in the intended way? Are we being too restrictive? Are we really reflecting the entire student body? Is there a better way to go about doing it?”

It’s especially interesting that this review is coming now – and it shows that maybe, just maybe, folks at the Patriot League are taking a fresh look at the AI calculations because as they stand right now they are not working the way they should be.

Scholarships
No other topic in the world of Patriot League athletics invokes more passion than athletic scholarships versus need-based scholarships. It was a subject that very nearly broke the league apart.

The founding principles of the Patriot League in 1986 stated that only need-based aid would be offered to athletes. This was based on the Ivy League philosophy on scholarships, based again on the conclusions reached in the 1945 Ivy agreement. It reaffirmed their “disapproval” of athletic scholarships, and stated: “No student shall be eligible who has received financial support from any source except from personal, family, or [non-athletic] resources.”

The reasoning behind this was due to the disturbing overtones of “paying-for-play” that scholarships appear to be. In the very early days of football, it was not uncommon for players to get offered scholarships only to play, and sometimes “students” played at two or three schools. By 1945, with the advent of television contracts starting to work their way into football, they felt something needed to be done to protect amateurism in athletics. Need-based scholarships were a way to ensure that players are really amateurs: as the theory goes, if students are invested in their education and aren’t “paid” in the form of a scholarship, there is less incentive to cheat.

In practical terms for the Patriot League, in a need-based aid system athletes who can “afford” to pay go through the same financial aid office that all other students go through. Coaches have to become familiar with financial aid terms and rules, and have to determine approximately how much would be covered by need-based aid, and which aid packages might apply. Some will not qualify for any aid at all, or only have it partially paid, but high-need kids can qualify to have their financial aid come in the form of a grant (not needed to be paid back).

For high-need kids, this grant is the equivalent of a scholarship, and is counted as such by the NCAA for various purposes - bowl eligibility (if we play, say, UConn, a win over Lehigh wouldn't count towards bowl eligibility for them unless Lehigh offers more than 53 scholarships), Title IX (which manadates that the percentage of women's scholarships must be in proportion to men's scholarships, compared to the male/female ratio of the student body), and so on.

Tune in next week for Part 2: Presidential Control.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Quick Hit: NFF Fanpoll

While doing research for my "New Realities" piece on the Patriot League, I stumbled across this site from the National Football foundation, with the following poll: "What is the best rivalry in college football?" If you're reading this site, of course you know that it's "The Rivalry"", Lehigh/Lafayette! When I discovered this poor orphan poll Lehigh was languishing with something like 4 votes. Show your love to the Patriot League, and "The Rivalry", by getting it all the way up to #1!

I mean, Notre Dame and USC have played each other, what, only 78 times?

[UPDATE: Check the link. Readers are getting the job done... all I'll say is it's a lot more than 4 votes now... keep up the good work!]
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