This morning, Fordham and the Patriot League made the official announcement: the Rams will be in contention for the Patriot League football title in 2009, but in 2010 will not be eligible for the league title:
Fordham has notified the Patriot League that it will begin awarding athletic scholarships to its football class entering in the fall of 2010. As a result, the Patriot League Football Presidents have endorsed an agreement with Fordham wherein the Rams will continue their association with the League but will be ineligible for the Patriot League title and automatic playoff berth beginning that season, announced Patriot League Executive Director Carolyn Schlie Femovich on Friday.
Fordham will remain as an associate member in the Patriot League, and will continue to be eligible for the League title and automatic playoff berth in the 2009 season. The Rams will be included in the League schedule through 2012, though their games against Patriot League members will not count in the League standings. Fordham will still follow the same academic and eligibility requirements as other League members.
Fordham remains a member of the Patriot League for the 2009 season, is eligible for the Patriot League title, are eligible for postseason awards, and their statistics will be "official Patriot League statistics" - something that seemed pretty much to be a lock, anyway, for this season.
But in 2010 Fordham won't be eligible for the Patriot League title, their wins and losses won't count as "Patriot League wins and losses", and their statistics won't be "official Patriot League statistics". The Rams will remain an associate member when it comes to academic requirements and will be considered "part of the Patriot League" - but in practical terms, starting in 2010 the Patriot League and Fordham are entering a scheduling agreement.
What's interesting is that they are still following the same "academic and eligibility requirements" as the rest of the Patriot League - meaning, they're still going to be adhering to the Patriot League's Academic Index. Broadly speaking, that means their football recruits will have the same stringent requirements as the rest of the league - so if you're a football recruit and your numbers mean you can't get into, say, Lehigh, you also won't be able to get into Fordham, either.
"There is strong desire both on the part of Fordham and the Patriot League to continue our long-standing relationship," said Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell, the Chair of the Patriot League Council of Presidents. "The interim arrangement we have agreed to will allow Fordham to begin to award scholarships in football while affording the League time to address merit aid for football and broader issues related to membership expansion. This issue comes at a very difficult financial time on all of our campuses."
The Patriot League Council of Presidents will continue to discuss the competitive and financial implications of athletic merit aid for the League football membership as well as the long-term goals of the League. It is anticipated that a decision will be made no later than the end of 2010.
Fordham's eligibility for the League title and inclusion in the standings in future years will be evaluated pending the decision on athletic scholarships for all League members.
Netted out: Fordham's still is implementing the AI, Fordham's not going to totally leave the Patriot League, and the League's won't come to an immedate decision in the near future on football scholarships. Fordham and the Patriot League, in essence, both end up punting: Fordham punts their decision to leave the Patriot League, and the Patriot League punts on the decision to offer football scholarships (which, if implemented, would keep Fordham as an associate member in 2010 and beyond).
It's an agreement that leaves plenty of fudge room for both Fordham and the Patriot League. If the League chooses to implement scholarships, Fordham will retroactively be "part of the league" - and will have been part of the league all along. If Fordham chooses to go to another conference for football, they don't need to wait for the League to finally decide on football scholarships and can honestly say they did "all they can do", even going as far as continuing to implement the AI when they didn't have to.
Most importantly, it delays any Patriot League decision on scholarships to the future, while allowing Fordham to blaze forward in their goal to offer the same type of athletic aid that schools like Hofstra, Delaware, and Albany offer. Fordham can take action, and the Patriot League can stand still and see if they want to decide.
Fordham's and the Patriot League's decision to "punt" will have several different interesting effects, however.
Folks have been wondering for years exactly what would happen if the Patriot League had football scholarships with stringent academic requirements - and Fordham just became their test case. They'll still be an "associate member", but will still have exactly the same pool of athletes that the rest of the Patriot League can choose from.
So what will happen in 2010? Will Fordham become a powerhouse, accepting a class of 2014 that blows away everyone else in the league? Will they win head-to-head recruiting battles against Lehigh, Colgate, and the rest of the League? Will they need to spend more on Title IX? (The Fordham release claims that they will not need to spend more on Title IX - that it's simply putting money in the "need-based aid" pot to the "football scholarship" pot - but this fact is disputed in some quarters.)
What's also extremely interesting is that there can really only be two outcomes to this experiment: either the League implements scholarships and Fordham stays, or the League says goodbye to scholarships and Fordham goes. It's hard to see a scenario where Fordham decides their football scholarship money is not well spent and come rushing back to a need-based aid league - it's either a step towards scholarships or a step towards Fordham leaving the league, one or the other.
This should put immense pressure on the Patriot League to come to a decision on football scholarships sooner rather than later. The release says such a decision should come no later than the end of 2010, but it seems like something would have to be decided earlier than that. Is the league really willing to field questions from potential Patriot League expansion candidates on the state of this issue for the next year and a half? If Richmond wants to join the Patriot League in football tomorrow, are they really going to say they're going to "wait and see" until the end of 2010 to decide? Conversely, if Marist wants to join the Patriot League in all sports but scholarship football is a dealbreaker, is the League too really going to tell them too to "wait and see"?
Also, how long is Fordham really going to want to continue in this agreement? While Fordham really wants to stay a part of the Patriot League (that's evident in their release), will a couple years of this agreement start to try even their patience?
In the end, this decision seems likely to be seen in one of two ways. It could be a risky, brilliant move by the Patriot League to keep Fordham as a member, ease into football scholarships for the entire league, and (perhaps) gain other members who wouldn't consider joining unless football scholarships were a part of the equation. Or it could be the first step towards the Patriot League becoming a six-team Ivy-like league, more and more removed from the rest of FCS with a perceived inability to make hard decisions or work out their own definitions of amateurism - and even so, they still might gain other members who wouldn't consider joining unless football scholarships are not part of the equation.
Will Fordham go one way, and the League another? Or will both go forth in the same direction?
Time will tell which way this thing goes.
[UPDATE: Official reaction for Fordham - and, in a real surprise, Lehigh.
Fordham head coach Tom Masella: “Being able to award scholarships based on athletic ability will greatly increase the pool of student-athletes that we are able to recruit. We are pleased to be able to maintain our Patriot League schedule and at the same time, look to enhance our schedule with the addition of some FBS schools along with top FCS schools. In the end this will aid us in achieving our ultimate goal, a spot in the NCAA FCS playoffs.”
Lehigh head coach Andy Coen: “At this time, I view Fordham's move to scholarship football as a positive move. I am excited that the League Presidents are committed to discussions on awarding athletic merit aid for all league members. I am certainly a proponent of scholarship football in our league. I have no doubt that scholarships would enhance Patriot League football on the national level, which I believe would help every member institution.”
Fordham AD Frank McLaughlin: “I would like to publically thank the Patriot League as this has been a long process of ongoing discussion and I appreciate everyone’s understanding. We look forward to continuing our relationship with the League’s schools, along with our ongoing annual rivalry with Columbia University. We also look forward to the opportunity to compete in future games with other Ivy League schools now on the schedule such as Cornell, Penn, Yale and Harvard. Finally, the scholarships will allow us to renew rivalries with Army and Villanova and to enhance our schedule with the addition of schools such as Navy and Connecticut.”
Lehigh AD Joe Sterrett: “The athletic merit financial aid awards that Lehigh offers in sports other than football have contributed positively to yielding student-athletes of desirable academic quality, strong athletic quality and other qualities that Lehigh values. We understand the reasons for Fordham’s decision and hope that the ongoing discussions will enable them to remain a member of the Patriot League.”
Fordham president Fr. Joseph McShane: “I am very pleased to announce this momentous news for the football Rams,” Father McShane said. “Momentous may be understating it, in fact. This is a sea change for Fordham athletics: these scholarships will allow more students to participate in Fordham football, and will make the team much more competitive both in Patriot League and non-league games.”
Wow, Simply, wow. I can't think of a stronger-worded statement from Lehigh on the issue of football scholarships.]