Thursday, May 24, 2007

New Realities, Part V: Conclusions

I know the image to my left will strike fear in the hearts of some of the regular readers of my blog as I deliver Part V (and the final part) of my analysis of the "New Realities" of the Patriot League. In a lot of ways, the NESCAC (the "New England Small College Athletic Conference") represents what some critics feel the Patriot League desperately wants to become - a Division III school that strictly adheres to the dogma of pure amateur sports, including a self-imposed ban on the D-III playoffs for its athletes.

In my research, I didn't see any evidence of a league that wanted to drop into D-III. I saw a league that is currently trying to figure out where it belongs in the Division I world. On all campuses, there is a pride that their school is Division I in football and able to compete nationally for championships. All of the folks I talked to seemed not to mind holding athletes to some form of standards to ensure that they're academically representative of the rest of the class. The million-dollar question is: how to do this in a reasonable way, and stay competitive for national championships in all sports.

[NOTE: A full, one-page version of this series of blog postings, is here at the College Sporting News. ]

Presidential Control
In Part I I discussed the close history of the Patriot and Ivy Leagues. They started out with the same model, based on the landmark 1945 Ivy Agreement which separated admissions and athletics offices, reporting directly to the president. In Part II I talked more about this relationship, showing the positives and negatives in this structure. As of now, this structure seems to be a good balance of power, keeping admissions and athletics departments from their worse excesses. To have great students and great teams, athletics and admissions will need to work together, which overall seems to be a good thing.

Academic Indexes
Part III dissects the Academic Index (or AI for short) , and talks about the review of that tool for evaluating potential athletic admits. It seems to have done a good job with getting the right students into Patriot League schools, but it feels like it's time to update the formula to become more reflective of the new academic realities.

High schools, especially exclusive ones, like to get their students into Patriot League and Ivy League schools. They want to be able to say to parents, “We put more students into Patriot League and Ivy schools than any other school in the area!”

But just because high schools are making it harder, that’s not to say that Patriot League schools should all of a sudden not care about academics. Having an incoming athletics class that is comprised of exceptional academic achievers is what all Patriot League schools want more than anything. Nobody wants students that can’t do the job academically.

The AI may have worked at one time to further this goal. But times have changed. Schools are measuring kids differently. Measures are proving to be imperfect at best, discriminatory at worst. Nobody I talked to said that kids are getting smarter, or that the AI was working perfectly. It needs to be brought up to date with the times, maybe by creating new criteria to measure academic success at the high school level.

Maybe putting some subjective criteria into the AI (like a portion of the AI score coming from admissions and athletics interviews, for example) might help identify other athletes who could thrive at Patriot League institutions. Some critics might call that dumbing down academic standards, but I think of it as reaching outside the strict lines of the AI to find more exceptional students that could be slipping through the cracks. Not everything can be boiled down to a test score – that’s why colleges have admissions offices. If a regular student can be helped in admissions with a good interview, why can’t an athlete’s AI?

Part IV finally tackles the elephant in the room: the possibility of athletic scholarships to further the Patriot League's mission in attracting the best possible academically qualified athletes. As a study of men's basketball conclusively proved, athletic scholarships allows schools to become more selective in getting recruits by allowing those schools to compete against "free educations" offered by other schools.

There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be used as a tool by admissions officers to get high-academic athletes into their schools. With the existing structure of separation between athletics offices and admissions departments under presidential control, all forces should be kept in balance -- and high academics standards should win out.

Some might say scholarships would rip the Patriot League apart financially, separating the "have's" with the "have-not's" in terms of athletic spending. I don't believe this would have to happen. Adding some form of partial scholarship on top of the grants-in-aid that are currently offered wouldn't break the bank, while at the same time allowing more options for coaches to get their top candidates.

There’s no reason why the Patriot League should lose their soul if they offer some scholarships or change their AI calculation. What would be much worse is if the league does nothing while the rest of the world adapts to the new realities. The Patriot League could lose their brand of athletics, squeezed by free education on the athletic side and squeezed by the Ivies and FBS schools on the academic side. That would be an awful – and preventable - shame.

Monday, May 21, 2007

New Realities, Part IV: Athletic Scholarships

It's becoming a pretty wild and wooly world out there for college recruiting. Websites like the one to my right have been springing up everywhere, in an effort to match up athletic scholarships and schools that offer them. The NCAA recently banned text-messaging between coaching staffs and potential prospects since some coaches seized on text messaging as a way around the NCAA laws limiting communication between coaches and prospects. In many ways, it feels like a wild west out there.

Some might say that the whole source of the problem is athletic scholarships. With industries devoted to matching up recruits and coaches, and technology being abused for the purpose of bending recruiting rules, the solution appears easy: just get rid of athletic scholarships, and see the process chance. This approach dates all the way back to to 1945, when the Ivy Group Agreement declared their disapproval of athletic scholaships. “No student shall be eligible who has received financial support from any source except from personal, family, or [non-athletic] resources," it claimed.

The founding principles of the Patriot League in 1986 stated that only need-based aid would be offered to athletes. 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 nearly broke the league apart.

In practical terms for the Patriot League, their need-based aid system means that athletes who can “afford” to pay for school will go through the same financial aid office that all other students go through. That means that 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 – even on the recruiting trail. Some prospective students 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 mandates 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.

Almost immediately after the Patriot League implemented this model for all sports in 1990, Fordham was not happy with it -- most notably in men’s basketball. “We joined the Patriot League under the assumption that we would be able to keep our basketball scholarships,” Fordham Athletic Director Frank McLaughlin said. “After we lost [scholarships], we found that it really hurt us in the other sports. So when the Atlantic 10 came to pursue us, so we decided to go there. If the Patriot League had kept scholarships in basketball, we probably would have stayed in the Patriot League [for all sports]. In football [as an associate member], we love the Patriot League.”

Holy Cross had the same experience. A few years later, when Holy Cross threatened to leave over the issue of scholarships in men’s basketball, the league was in serious danger of breaking apart. Not only was Holy Cross one of the important founding members of the League, without Holy Cross the league was in desperate danger of losing their autobid in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Like at Fordham, there was intense pressure among alumni and students to adopt scholarship basketball since they had a history of being a regional athletic power. In order to keep Holy Cross in the fold, the league decided to allow schools the choice on whether to offer basketball scholarships. It worked; Holy Cross decided to stay, and the Patriot League survived.

Since that critical moment in 1998, one by one every Patriot League school started to offer scholarships in men’s and women’s basketball. Lafayette, the final holdout, recruited their first scholarship classes in basketball last year. It offered a unique opportunity to compare the effect of scholarships on the league – what sort of academic numbers they had when recruited, and how successful the teams were.

The results were illuminating. As an article in Lafayette’s Alumni magazine said recently, Lafayette’s athletics working group found that in men’s basketball while they were offering only need-based aid, “a disproportionate share of recruited athletes fall on the weaker end of the admissions scale”. But after offering athletic scholarships, those incoming academic numbers increased dramatically. This corroborated with what Bucknell and Colgate had discovered, as well as other schools. "We are leveling the playing field for our coaches and giving them the tools they need to attract the best scholar-athletes to Colgate," said Colgate faculty dean Jack Dovidio in regards to basketball scholarships. "We should no longer be in a situation where we are losing top recruits to schools with a lower academic profile simply because they can offer scholarships."

Could the main mission of the Patriot League, to have athletes’ academic standards represent the rest of their incoming class, be best and most easily achieved by offering scholarships across all sports, including football?

This view is buttressed by the discussions I had with other football coaches in the league. “With scholarships, the Patriot League could be even more selective,” one coach said. “There’s a whole pool of prospects that are academically and athletically eligible that neither the Ivy nor Patriot League cannot get due to finances alone. And that pool of athletes is fairly large.

“The Ivy and Patriot League lose an awful lot of kids due to the financial realities. In theory, yeah, the kid’s going to select the best place for him and his future. The reality is, except for kids on either end of the spectrum [high-need or no need], everyone else in the middle is going to face the financial reality. It’s not only the cost, it’s the size of the family, whether they have brothers or sisters who will be going to college soon, age of the parents – there are so many variables. When given the choice of free education over paying for a great school, many families are going to take the free education.”

And for football players in the East, there are plenty of nearby opportunities for “free education”. Rutgers, Penn State and Boston College have always provided solid education and FBS football, but the FCS ranks are becoming more crowded with schools offering the maximum number of scholarships (63). And it’s not only the twelve (soon to be thirteen) schools of the CAA and FCS independent Stony Brook. The seven schools of the NEC very recently decided to offer 30 scholarships in football, putting more free education within reach than ever before.

It’s not only athletic-related aid that is exploding around the collegiate landscape. With the higher costs of college education, merit aid of all kinds is being used to attract different types of students to their institutions. The Wall Street Journal noted in 2006 that “at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., which costs about $40,000 a year, about a quarter of last fall's freshman class of 1,250 received merit scholarships averaging about $15,000 each. About 45% of the students at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, receive merit-aid packages of up to $25,000 a year.”

It’s ironic that athletic scholarships, long the bete noire of the academics who opposed them as “affirmative action for athletes”, seem to have been used as a model by all sorts of American colleges and universities as a way to attract all sorts of talent, not just athletes. As a result, the case for need-based aid versus athletic scholarships seems even more damaged. How can one argue that aid for an athlete is immoral and then arguing that offering $15,000 worth of aid to a world-class cello-playing student is fine?

With their main argument against athletic scholarships damaged, some folks still fight on in regards to opposing athletic aid. But looking around the landscape, it seems like most of the philosophical battles are occurring down at the D-III level, not in D-I. The Ivy League seems content with adhering to their self-imposed standards, and there doesn't seem to be a clamor to change the status quo with students, fans, or alumni. With the NEC offering limited scholarships, and Duquesne to join them in 2008, the non-scholarship MAAC is in on the brink of folding completely. And the Pioneer Football League is hosting a session to try to save D-I non-scholarship football this summer. No matter how you look at it, D-I non-scholarship football is on the ropes, and shrinking.

Later this week will be the final posting: Some Conclusions.
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