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Sunday's Word: Ram

For those folks that don't know, every Sunday during the football regular season I write an opinion piece called "Sunday's Word" - the word that best sums up the past week. I decided to kick off my Sunday pieces tonight with the one word that has dominated the Patriot League offseason, and it should come as no surprise to anybody.

Patriot League Media day is coming up on Tuesday of this week. In years past, media day has been a way to get excited about the season - to think of what records Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph might be able to shatter, say, or if senior QB John Skelton can bring Fordham back to the top of the League this year, or if senior DT B.J. Benning and the rest of the Mountain Hawks can make a run at this thing this year. But that's not the big topic of conversation this offseason.

Instead, it's focused on - you guessed it - "Rams".

The 2007 champions that struggled to a 5-6 season in 2008 have made all the headlines with their decision to start offering aid not based on need starting this fall - in other words, football scholarships. The rumblings started in March with head football coach Tom Masella, became a formal declaration in May, and became an agreement with the League in June. The upshot is that the Patriot League will keep Fordham as a member for the next two years at least, Fordham will start offering scholarships consistent with the League's academic index, and in those two years either the Patriot League will either open up the possibility of scholarships or lose Fordham as a member and continue the policy of need-based aid.

For fans of a league that has offered needs testing for all its aid since its inception, this was a seismic change - and (to some) might collapse one of a basic pillars of the foundation of the League, one of not "paying for kids to play sports". But at the same time this was a pillar whose flaws were evident almost from the start - kids who get a full ride at Albany vs. a partial scholarship at Colgate tend to become Great Danes, not Raiders. The pillar also has been "rammed" for years as well in other sports, such as men's and women's basketball, where removing the needs test for aid has resulted in getting better academic students overall.

Still, clearly the Patriot League membership could not "ram" the changes down the throats of the Patriot League presidents. For Fordham, offering scholarships offered no pain but (potentially) big gains: already in compliance with Title IX requirements, they wouldn't need to spend another dime to get in compliance. However, it became clear that one big problem is Title IX compliance for other Patriot League schools should scholarships be allowed - and anything in this economic climate that smacks of more spending appears to be a near-impossible sell in the short term.

Instead, the Patriot League chose to go into the situation more like a lamb than a "Ram", giving the membership a couple years to come to some sort of consensus. And in that there are some encouraging signs: Bucknell has started a feasibility study, and Lehigh came out with a formal statement in favor of scholarships. Meanwhile, nobody has gone on public record saying that it would be a bad idea to offer scholarships in the Patriot League for football - another major step in the right direction.

But ultimately it's not in the hands of the fans (who appear to be near-unanimously in favor), coaches (who also appear to be near-unanimously in favor) or even ADs (who seem to, conservatively, have a majority in favor). It's the presidents - who have very different constituencies, and sometimes have very different priorities - who have to make the decision in the end.

The presidents should think very carefully about this, too. Not offering scholarships means ultimately losing Fordham as a Patriot League member in football, but it means a lot more than that: it means losing one of the members who wanted to be a part of something bigger than just pursuing ESPN contracts. Fordham was - and still is, in football - recruiting players with an Academic Index to ensure they can do the coursework. Unlike a whole lot of other institutions, they genuinely want to graduate student-athletes, and have wanted to from the start.

Losing Fordham means a lot more than losing an associate school in football. Fordham was there at the start, before non-scholarship basketball forced them to join the Atlantic 10 in all sports but football. Let's not make any bones about it - losing Fordham would absolutely pose questions about whether the whole Patriot League model has failed. If the League can't keep a school that has tried so hard to remain a part of it since the beginning, what hope does the league have of attracting other schools to that model?

And there is great value to a new Patriot League model - one with athletic scholarships and an academic index. Let's hope that the "Ram's" "Ramming" doesn't obcure that point with presidents around the Patriot League.

Comments

ngineer said…
Simply comes down to dollars. To go 'merit' scholarship for football would require the schools to come up with equivalent scholarships for women's sports. Assuming 54 scholarships, that translates to about $2,000,000 plus for additional scholarships for the other sports. Obviously, these are rough numbers, but it shows the difficulty the presidents face in budgetary terms.
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