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The Place For (Patriot League) Athletics

As Patriot League fans, it seems like many discussions about our league end up with a discussion about the "place of athletics" at our universities. It's a by-product of the rules that our schools have chosen to follow in terms of athletics, following in the footsteps of the Ivy League to ensure academic standards.

What I haven't seen before, though, is a published discussion about these issues with the difference-makes in a college administration. This forum in the Holy Cross alumni magazine winter issue does just that with Holy Cross' president (Fr. Michael C. McFarland, S.J.), influential vice-presidents (like Frank Vellaccio), the athletic director (Dick Regan) and a host of other people.

The fascinating four-page look at athletics, including a frank discussion of football scholarships, is a must-read for many reasons, not least because it articulates the thoughts of the person whose decision matters the most in Rev. McFarland. I'd encourage you to read all four pages of it, but I wanted to volunteer my views on the piece as well.

Basketball runs the show. When you read it, it jumps out at every opportunity. The "rivalry with Bucknell in the last few years" is only really discussed in terms of basketball. The moaning about the inability to schedule out-of-conference basketball games (though it's not clear how leaving the Patriot League would help this). The contrast on graduation rates with... Gonzaga. The most spirited of discussions have at their core a focus on basketball first, and football a most distant second - in hardly glowing terms.

Tellingly, Fr. McFarland says that "we love to play schools in New York because that’s where a big part of our alumni base is," - but neglects to mention that they played at Fordham this year for the de-facto Patriot League football championship this year to a sellout crowd. A sort-of rivalry with a school in Lewisburg, PA, but no rivalry in football with Fordham? The omission is glaring.

The picture above, taken first page of the article, may as well be an indicator as well. Holy Cross has been re-cast as a basketball-only school that happens to have hockey, and oh yeah, football. That wasn't always the case.

BC-Envy. The battle between Holy Cross and Boston College - and the two very different directions they have taken their sports programs - defines Holy Cross' attitude towards football. Some alumni feel deep lament that their big fall Saturdays against BC have been taken away forever, and the leadership of the College who are steadfast in their commitment to academic excellence.

McDermott: When it comes to athletics, what I hear from alumni—especially when you get farther away from Massachusetts—is a kind of frustration. They see other schools (read: Boston College - LFN) that made different decisions along the way getting a lot of national recognition. I don’t think the majority of alums are necessarily unhappy about the route we’ve taken. But when it comes to the athletic arena, they feel that their pride in the College isn’t able to be expressed as fully as they might like.

Clark Booth, Sportswriter : But do you ever hear any of your friends moaning about the fact that Boston College may go to the Sugar Bowl and Holy Cross will be sitting at home? Do they raise these points?

Christine Strawson, Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year: I haven’t heard that. But, let’s admit it, B.C. has definitely gained extreme name recognition through their sports programs.

Booth: I still hear from alumni who bemoan the loss of the B.C. rivalry. Who don’t understand why Chestnut Hill went one way and Mount St. James went another. I want to ask what you say to these people.

Fr. McFarland: Well, as you know, I’m quite familiar with B.C. I’ve worked there. The simple fact is, they’re a different school from Holy Cross. Yes, we share many things—the two communities overlap quite a bit in terms of families, in terms of people who worked at B.C. who went to Holy Cross and vice versa. But they’re just a very different school. Boston College is an urban research university. Holy Cross is a liberal arts college in a mid-size city. These are totally different environments. And students will come to each of these schools for different reasons. In the end, the truth is that the rivalry in football didn’t really make sense at some point.

Frank Vellaccio, Vice President: I think for some of our older alumni, the rivalry was such an inherent and dramatic part of their college experience. And now, today, these same alumni see how B.C. has surged in so many areas—admissions, endowment, building, national reputation. And, in the minds of some people, the only thing they can attribute this surge to is the decision to invest in athletics. The same choices weren’t an option for us, but they were for them.

True, BC decided to pursue the big money of bowls and was a part of the Big East's rise of power, and Holy Cross (wisely, IMO) decided to not go that route.

But what isn't mentioned was the unnecessary minimization of football at Holy Cross once the Crusaders gave up full scholarships in football. Once joining the Patriot League, they didn't just accept the need to go to need-based aid in all sports. They seized on the chance to phase out scholarships and make it impossible to compete in the Patriot League itself in football, let alone on a national stage in I-AA.

Statistics tell that story: From 1982 (Holy Cross' first-year in I-AA) to 1991 (when their last scholarship players graduated), they had 9 winning seasons and only one losing season (after which the head coach - tragically- took his own life). Six times they won eight games or more a year, and captured five Patriot League championships. A 20 game winning streak in 1990 that was the longest current streak in college football at that time.

In contrast, from 1992 to 2003, they only had two winning seasons and nine losing seasons. They topped six wins only once, and five times didn't get more than two wins a season. Patriot League championships? Zero.

That's not just a hiccup in coaching or adjustment to grants-in-aid. That's a systemic push to downgrade football. Rev. Brooks, the Holy Cross president who engineered the move to the Patriot League, was widely thought to have had a vision of football for the Patriot League that resembled Division III NESCAC rather than the grant-in-aid vision of the league today, and looking statistically at the decline of Holy Cross football it's hard to argue against that. It doesn't help that when Holy Cross announced that they were reinstating basketball scholarships that they declared basketball to be their "marquee sport". That wasn't always the case.

When Fr. McFarland says that the BC rivalry "didn't make sense at some point", what isn't being said was the actions at Holy Cross that made it stop making sense - even well into the time that Lehigh, Colgate and Fordham were proving that the Patriot League can win in the I-AA playoffs.

The NESCAC argument, to me, seems pretty dead currently in Worcester. When Holy Cross hired former Lehigh coach Tom Gilmore to run their program, it signified a change in attitude towards football and has heralded a turnaround.

The Road To Football Scholarships? Proponents of scholarships can't be happy to have read the following:

Booth: Which returns us to the scholarship question. Let me ask this, who here would like to reopen the conversation about athletic scholarships?

Fr. McFarland: Well, first of all, football would have to be a separate category.

Booth: Why is that? Because you’d destroy the Patriot League, would you not, if you said we’re going back to scholarships? Would Holy Cross bring the Patriot League down if they reinstated football scholarships?

Fr. McFarland: Right now the Patriot League allows scholarships in every sport but football. And there are several schools that would like to institute scholarships in football. But we’re not one of them. In any event, the restoration of football scholarships would have to be a league decision. Beyond this, football scholarships would be tremendously expensive.

Booth: How do you feel, Dick? Would you like to have football scholarships?

Dick Regan, Athletic Director: In a perfect world, sure. But, as things stand, I’m not pushing for them. I was a CFO for a good part of my career. I have a feel for the financial issues we’re seeing right now. So sure, I’d love to have football scholarships, but I don’t think it’s practical or realistic right now. We estimate it would cost us a million-two to a million-five a year. Because if you add football scholarships, you would, of course, have to balance that with an equal number of women’s athletics scholarships. That’s a lot of money given all the other pressures we have right now. For that reason, I can live with the status quo as long as our peers do.

Like many ADs around the Patriot League, Mr. Regan shows that the the financial implications of scholarships are a reality that has a lot to do with the hesitance to go full bore on transitioning from grants to scholarships. After looking at these numbers carefully, the numbers of 1.2 or 1.5 million seem a little conservative when you consider Title IX considerations and the high probability that Holy Cross would have to add another sport to make this work (like women's crew, for example).

Having said that, I do get uneasy when the debate is framed in an "all or nothing" way since I feel like the decision "all scholarship or grants" is a false choice. Certainly there has to be some third way with a combination of grants and some scholarships? There is a leeway that wasn't brought up in this discussion and should be a discussion that ADs are having about this.

The sausage-making of need-based aid. Quotes like the following from the outspoken Mr. Vellaccio are worth repeating:

Vellaccio: There are certainly some very positive things about the Patriot League. But there are some negative things about it, too. That’s part of what keeps the debate alive. There is just no question that we’ve found it very difficult to run a Division I program without scholarships. And everyone thinks that scholarships are a dirty game. But, in truth, there’s an aspect of not having scholarships that can be just as dirty in terms of making special admissions decisions and rigging financial aid. Honestly, there’s a lot more ambiguity when you don’t have scholarships than when you do. So, yes, there are a number of issues regarding athletics that aren’t settled. And I think we should talk about them.

We need to focus on what’s best for our students and the College today. And that’s a complex question. For example, we have been considering converting need-based financial aid to athletic scholarships in some sports, because when we look, for example, at our hockey team, we find we’re spending about as much money in men’s hockey as we would if we offered the required number of scholarships. So we have to ask if it wouldn’t make more sense to fund hockey scholarships and gain some leverage, recruit at a new level and become more competitive. And, of course, if we do it in men’s hockey, we have to fund an equivalent numbers of scholarships in women’s sports. It’s neat and it’s fair. I think there are schools that violate gender equity because they don’t give scholarships. They give a lot more aid to needy men and they somehow are unable to find any needy women.

Booth: Let’s talk scholarships. There’s no such thing as football scholarships or hockey scholarships. But you do have need-based scholarships, which has been an area of some controversy at certain schools because you can stretch that in different ways and get away with it.

Vellaccio: Yes. It’s called “preferential packaging.”

Fr. McFarland: It refers to how you construct the financial aid package of a desired student. Financial aid consists of grants, loans and on-campus work programs. In a preferential package, a greater percentage of the aid comes in the form of grants than in loans or work.

Booth: How many of our football players are receiving scholarship aid on a need basis?

Vellaccio: All the recruited football players receive preferential packaging on a need basis.

Booth: And would these students get that same amount of aid were they not football players?

Fr. McFarland: They would get the same amount of aid as any other student based on equivalent need, but it would be configured differently. For instance, let’s look at two students who both require $20,000. Of that amount, the football player would receive a $20,000 grant and the other student would receive $13,000 in grant money and $7,000 in loans and work-study, what we call “self help.”

Vellaccio: And this is what I find interesting regarding athletic scholarships. They’re clean with respect to gender equity. Same numbers. Same amount of money. For every one you do here, you have to do one there. But with preferential packaging, you have no control over the need of different students. So, while the number of preferential packages has to be the same, the amount of money does not. If women on average just happen to be less needy—and, for some reason, at Holy Cross they are—you can end up spending less money on women than men and not violate gender equity.

Calling this "dirty" and "rigging" of financial aid is going way too far, but he does accurately talk about some of the less savory aspects of need-based aid. "Preferential Packaging" is another word for grants-in-aid that Patriot League schools use to attract students, and it's very interesting that the entire Holy Cross football team is on these grants (for example, I'm fairly sure that this isn't the case at Lehigh).

But isn't his argument circular? Patriot League schools have shown that the types of athletes that are admitted tend to be either high-need (whereas almost all of their school is paid for anyway) or no-need (where the parents will be footing the bill). Our schools have consistently had problems getting that kid who's good enough to be a Division I athlete but whose parents still have a hefty tuition bill to pay. With that given, it's hard to make the complaint that "more men are high-need than women" when the Patriot League's grant policy means you end up with a lot more high-need athletes that scholarship institutions (where, ironically, the grants basically end up being scholarships anyway)..

Furthermore, isn't the aid policy a reflection of the realities of the athletic landscape out there instead of a policy of not providing scholarships to women? After all, there's nothing stopping prospective students from getting at some of that grant-in-aid money in, say, women's track - who's steering high-need women athletes away from those grants?

I could see his point if there's someone in an athletic department turning away female athletes who qualify for aid, but I see no evidence to back this up.

Missing: The Academic Index. My one bugaboo about this discussion was that the discussion of the Academic Index (or AI) wasn't mentioned once. A lot of chest-thumping was spent talking about how:

Vellaccio: There is lots of evidence that a successful sports program does not increase alumni giving. But the fact of the matter is that, if you’re a decent academic institution, your athletic tail can help wag that dog a whole lot. There’s just no doubt. Anybody who argues against that just doesn’t live in this world. Now, does that mean that you sell your soul to get that athletic reputation? Simply put, at Holy Cross, no!

Which is what all collegiate athletics should strive to be, of course. The Patriot League, however, has something in place that ensures that athletic departments don't "sell their soul": the AI. Briefly, it's a tool that ensures that athletes in the league adhere to an academic standard that is representative of the academic standing of the incoming class. And it has worked.

Although such chest-thumping on how great we are academically is nice, when you consider the existence of the AI the false question "should we compromise academic integrity" disappears, since the AI makes sure that this isn't the case including when talking about scholarship athletics.

A much more productive line of questioning would be: Wouldn't an AI with scholarships in football ensure both high-academic students while broadening the diversity on the team as well? The lack of discussion about the AI is frustrating.


Overall, this type of article is extremely worthwhile and really advances the discussion of scholarships and grants-in-aid, despite my nit-picks. (It also spawned some great reader responses.) I'd love to see a similar discussion in Lehigh's alumni magazine with president Gast, Athletic Director Joe Sterrett, Lehigh admissions officers, and other stakeholders.

However, the time for "hesitating" may be through. With the NEC rumored to be thinking about expanding from 30 to 45 scholarships starting with the class of 2013, very soon the debate might shift from "scholarships or not?" to "how do we keep up with the Ivy League and the NEC?" I really hope that is not the case.


CHC8485 said…

If you have not done so already, take a look at the thread you started on the Crossports football topic.

I've included some corrections and clarifications as well as a fairly lengthy discussion about rivalries and the PL.

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