It's promising to be another very interesting year in the Patriot League - it seems like every year it's a wide-open race, and this year is no exception - but this year's media day was as much about what was being talked about when the microphones were off as well as on.
Hanging heavily in the room was the "S" word - scholarships.(more)
As Patriot League Executive Director Carolyn Schlie Femovich's opening remarks came and went, it was clear that an announcement on a decision on football scholarships was not going to be coming today from the league office.
Here's a refresher course on the issue for those following along at home: the Patriot League requires all their football student-athletes to go through the financial aid office in order to qualify for aid for school, while other athletes - notably their college basketball players - do not have to do so. It has been a bone of contention for years now as Fordham made an independent decision to offer them starting with this year's incoming class, making them ineligible for the Patriot League title in 2010.
Ms. Femovich said that the Patriot League presidents are "continuing to discuss the issue", with a final decision to be made by the end of 2010.
But even though that was the official end of discussion on the matter, informally it continued to dominate the side discussions on the matter the rest of the morning and afternoon.
On the surface, the whole Patriot League football scholarship issue might seem to be one of semantics. If they go through the aid office or get what's called a "scholarship", who cares, really? It's still education that's paid for - and it ensures that the athletes really need the aid, rather than just giving the money out blindly.
But in practice, forcing kids to go through the athletic aid office ends up deterring kids from coming to Patriot League schools.
Some aren't crazy at giving up their tax records to show what their true ability to pay might be; others simply wear the recognition that a "scholarship" provides, that their lifetime commitment to their sport has borne fruit; and others aren't willing to pay money to go to an exceptional Patriot League school when a pretty good school - say, Richmond, William & Mary, Villanova, Delaware or New Hampshire - will simply offer that kid a full scholarship, no questions asked.
On the side of the schools, too, it's not a simple issue either.
If the aid flows through the financial aid office, then it more resembles the types of aid that can be offered to all students, not just athletes. And this matters: Title IX requires that spending on athletics be somewhat proportional between men and women, so more money that gets spent on men's football also means more money needs to be spend on scholarships in women's sports.
When Fordham decided to make their change, it was not an issue at all to switch from need-based aid to scholarships since they were already spending enough on women's sports. It was simply a matter of removing the restriction they had chosen to place on themselves: they would be in compliance with Title IX anyway, with need-based aid or scholarship aid.
"I can only speak for our university," Fordham head football coach Tom Masella told Craig Haley of the Sports Network. "The future without scholarships wasn't very bright; the future with scholarships is extremely bright. We're not spending a dollar more than we spent before this - it's the same exact money allocated for need-based scholarships (as) for athletic scholarships. So that hasn't changed for us. What it's opened is an avenue of student-athletes that we couldn't recruit a year ago."
For Fordham, the decision made was doable - and practical. But for other schools in the Patriot League, it wouldn't be nearly as easy. Some schools would need to structurally change in order to be able to accommodate football scholarships in a significant way.
On the floor at media day, the scholarship issue worked its way into almost every off-the-record conversation.
Privately, multiple Patriot League coaches said they are foursquare in favor of offering football scholarships - and also emphasized that one way or another, they wanted closure on this issue soon. Recruiting is tougher when recruits don't know what the deal is, and coaches want to be able to answer their questions with clarity, not a five-minute answer as to why Fordham is offering scholarships but they would need to fill out financial aid forms.
And others echoed other concerns. For example, can the league expand without scholarships? If scholarships come to pass, might some schools choose to drop football rather than remain in the league? If scholarships don't get adopted, might another Patriot League school choose to offer scholarships anyway and risk being booted from the league?
But while the Patriot League presidents weren't present at the media day, there were encouraging signs that show that it's an issue that has their minds focused.
For example, Bucknell Athletics Director John Hardt told me their new president, John C. Bravman, has been active and involved with this issue already. That both Dr. Bravman and Colgate president Jeffrey Herbst are aware and asking questions and being involved with this issue - while only having been on the job for a few months - speaks volumes.
More off-the-record conversations with athletic department and league officials also reveal that there isn't unanimity amongst all the presidents on the issue. Some seem to be completely on board - like Lehigh, who long ago gave their blessing to the idea. But others seem opposed either to to practical reasons (Title IX, or financial reasons) or philosophical reasons.
Non-football members Army, Navy and American will also get a vote on this matter, and it's not abundantly clear which way they will vote. But what I heard is that the case for allowing scholarships is probably bolstered, not hindered, by their votes.
While American doesn't have football (and doesn't seem likely in the near future to bring it back) and FBS Army and Navy would not leave FBS nor leave their cherished independent status, it seems like their perspective is one of the overall brand of the Patriot League nationally. A strong FCS football conference - ideally, with more than seven football-playing members - helps that brand. They would only reap the benefits of that improved brand, without incurring any costs.
But will the presidents move even if it's a split 4-3 decision by the football playing schools? That's a question that couldn't be answered by anyone in the room, but it's one that matters. Would a slight majority, including the three non-FCS football-playing schools - be enough? Or would a stronger majority be required?
Could a compromise solution make it an easier decision - perhaps with a cap of 40 "conventional" scholarships, with the remainder of aid coming from the need-based variety? One wonders if that could tip the scales - and make it more affordable for schools who might be having Title IX issues. But then the question becomes: is Fordham OK with that?
In this reporter's opinion, scholarships are not a done deal yet - hardly. But the impression I get is that change is in the wind.
No person in the room would say that scholarships were definitely going to happen - or were likely to happen. There is still a great deal of uncertainty. There was plenty of kvetching about the Presidents - about their deliberation, their slow progress on this matter. Like the coaches, many folks want closure on this issue.
But talk these days is not about the "why" of scholarships anymore (Why are they necessary? Why is need-based aid morally superior?) but the "how" (How can league be organized fairly with scholarships? How can a school get into Title IX compliance?). That shift in the debate says a whole lot.
Nobody talked to me about "why". Only "how".
If the Patriot League presidents can answer that question - how? - in the next six months, I believe that the Patriot League will be announcing in 2010 that the next football recruiting class will be allowed to offer scholarships.