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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?

Scholarships
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.

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