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Ivy Football Postseason Ban: Not What the Founders Wanted?

(Photo Credit: Dave Burbank/The Ithaca Journal)

When it comes to Ivy League double standards, you can't do much better than comparing football and lacrosse.

In football, there is a ban on playing postseason football in the FCS playoffs. Aside from language in the original Ivy Agreement intimating a ban on postseason play, "interference with final exams" is one of many popular rationales for maintaining the ban that has been repeated over the years.

Such restrictions might be fine - if they were applied consistently to all Ivy League sports. But they're not. And all you need to do is look at the sport of Lacrosse to see why the Ivy League holds true to ideology... unless it benefits the bottom line.(more)

It seems like a yearly rite of passage for students, athletes, fans and alumni of Ivy League schools to complain about their antiquated ban on post-season play for football.

It's a ban that has been in place since 1945, when the original "football agreement" was signed between the schools now known as the Ivy League. Later it would expand competition to all collegiate sports, but the original agreement - available in PDF form by the University of Pennsylvania - originally applied only to football.

Re-reading the document today is a real eye-opener.

The members of the Group shall not engage in post-season games or any other contests designed to settle sectional or other championships. (NOTE: National Collegiate Athletic Association, Eastern College Athletic Conference, A.A.U., competitions and international competitions such as the games, meets and matches with Oxford and Cambridge Universities shall not be considered as post-season games or contests within the meaning of the above rule.)

In other words, there are no postseason games allowed - unless, of course, they would affect men's basketball (A.A.U. games), wrestling and hockey (ECAC), rowing (lucrative Oxford/Cambridge competitions) or anything else (NCAA Championships).

More importantly, however, any objective reading of the original agreement today makes it clear that the Ivy League presidents meant only to ban competition in postseason bowl games in football, which were (and still aren't) sanctioned by the NCAA and are the one postseason competition that appears to be affected.

At that time, many bowl games at the time took place in the Jim Crow south, where African-Americans couldn't stay with white teammates and couldn't eat in the same venues in many cases. There were very good moral and ethical reasons for banning postseason bowls in that era - and it actually something that is worth commending.  The Ivy League didn't succumb to segregationist money.

But football has changed immensely since 1945 - breaking into Divisions I, II, and III, and subdividing Division I into Bowl Subdivision and Championship Subdivision, not to mention that it has evolved into a much larger business than folks even back then might have been able to imagine.  And Jim Crow laws, thankfully, are a part of the past that is dead and buried.

Germane to the postseason ban discussion, however, was the creation of an NCAA-sanctioned I-AA championship for FCS football that started in 1978, and the decision of the Ivy League to compete as a I-AA teams instead of a I-A team in the early 1980s.

One reading of the postseason ban might be: once the Ivy League became a part of FCS nation, they were no longer subject to an FCS playoff ban because they are playing in an NCAA-sanctioned competition - which is not considered a post-season contest, based on the original document.

By doing so, it would allow football players to enjoy the same exemption that the men's basketball, hockey, lacrosse and wrestling teams have to allow them to compete for NCAA championships.

But the Ivy League presidents - fearful that their season ending games, such as Harvard/Yale and Dartmouth/Princeton, might lose fans and interest - have chosen instead to maintain the ban on the postseason for football only.

Despite the fact it's an NCAA competition - like the basketball NCAA tournament, and countless others - for the purposes of the ban it's called a "sectional or other championship."

Why? Even though FCS is the highest level of championship sanctioned by the NCAA - and the only one in Division I - since there is a Bowl Subdivision, and it has its own, unsanctioned "champion" who wins something called the "BCS Trophy", the Ivy League does not consider the FCS National Championship a "championship".

While all other Ivy League sports compete for an NCAA championship, the principle of football's ban on the NCAA's Division I postseason is based on the fact that there is another Division I subdivision that is considered "higher" than FCS - yet, in the eyes of the NCAA (and the eyes of the Ivy League for every other sport except football), all the rest of Division I is considered, um, Division I.

To recap: the original article never meant to keep the Ivy League from competing in NCAA football competitions, and the tools are in the original article to overturn the postseason ban on NCAA football competitions right now - but the Ivy League presidents, though some creative stretches of imagination, keep the ban in place on principle.

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Aside from the fiction that "that's the way the founders wanted it", the other popular canard floated for upholding the ban involves final exams.

At Ivy League schools, exams are so tough, so the excuse goes, that football players can't possibly compete for a national championship and take exams at the same time.

Certainly, many Ivy League championships don't occur during exam season. Unfortunately, lacrosse is not one of them.

Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States. It is also a sport where the Ivy League is every bit as competitive as teams from the "big money" conferences, such as the ACC (Duke, North Carolina) and Big East (Syracuse).

It's also an area that former new Ivy League executive director Jeff Orleans and current director Robin Harris has made a priority.

One of the Ivy League's founding principles is not hosting post-season conference tournaments:

Schedules in all other sports shall not be made prior to December of the college year preceding that in which the schedules will be played.

This language has been interpreted to say that any game that cannot be scheduled in advance - i.e. a postseason tournament pitting 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. - should not be done.  (It's been a considerable source of consternation for basketball fans, who have been clamoring for a postseason tournament for years.  The Ivy League is the sole holdout in Division I for a postseason basketball tournament.)

Another was the prohibition of sponsorship:

In conformity with customary practices of other academic officers, coaches shall not endorse commercial products.

But both "customary practices" were conveniently swept aside when the opportunity came for the Ivy League to sponsor its own Lacrosse tournament starting in 2010.

“We are delighted to have this opportunity to showcase our very strong men’s and women’s lacrosse teams,” Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans said in a press release. “And we’re also pleased that we can avoid deciding our automatic bid recipient through a tiebreaker formula if we have regular-season ties, as often has been the case.”

The move to add a postseason Ivy tournament, which was initially conceived two years ago and has been in the planning stages ever since, comes at a time when Ivy lacrosse, especially on the women’s side, has seen increased success on the national stage and in the NCAA Tournament.

According to Princeton men’s lacrosse head coach Bill Tierney, the ability of Ivy teams to compete and win in the tournament made a strong case for adopting a formal system of determining the Ivy League’s tournament qualifiers.

“It’s to highlight a sport that’s been very successful,” Tierney said. “If you look at national championships in team sports in the Ivy League, there aren’t that many sports that have been able to do what lacrosse has done. It’s a sport that’s been good to the Ivy League, and the league’s been good to it. It’s a win-win situation.”

...

"We are so thrilled to have Champion athleticwear present our inaugural men's and women's lacrosse tournaments," said Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris. "We appreciate Champion's support of Ivy League athletics and look forward to a great partnership."

"Champion is pleased to be the presenting sponsor of the inaugural men's and women's lacrosse tournaments," said Claire Powell, Director, Champion Brand Marketing. "Lacrosse is an important part of Champion's rich heritage, and we are committed to supporting the growth and success of this exciting sport."

In other words, principles are great - unless there's "money and exposure to be had", in which case the Ivy League agreement principles aren't just violated, they're essentially torn up. The Champion deal - reportedly worth $100,000 - also allowed the clothing company to produce TV broadcast of the championship as well, to be broadcast on ESPN's family of networks.

That the lacrosse postseason tournaments at some schools interfere with final exams as well really completes the picture. It's rich irony that lacrosse players, playing in their ESPNU championship paid for by Champion Sportswear, miss final exams to compete for championships while football players don't get a chance at a championship - and one of the reasons given is the baloney that it prevents them from studying for "final exams". It's hypocrisy at its most hypocritical.

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Don't get me wrong - these deals, in and of themselves, are not a "bad thing". I have no illusions that their $100,000 deal is good for the league and for Ivy League lacrosse. It's great that the Ivy League is doing well at Lacrosse, and that they've convinced someone to pay for their championships and secured a TV deal so folks can enjoy it worldwide.

One six-figure check for the Ivy League office won't corrupt Ivy League athletic departments.  Princeton spent $20 million alone on its athletics department in 2010 - and that number doesn't even count their generous financial aid packages that allow them to essentially scholarship every student, athlete and otherwise, that makes under $100,000 a year.

And academically, lacrosse players also find a way to balance national championship runs and academics, by all outward appearances.  Cornell's Academic Progress Report for 2010 shows a perfect academic record for its lacrosse players for 2008 and 2009.  They stay in school, and graduate.

But despite these facts, they show the elastic nature of the Ivy League "founding principles" when the situation is right. Because the Ivy League presidents choose to ignore those items about sponsorship and postseason tournaments, they get money to produce TV broadcasts of their championships and make a profit on the deal. But when it comes to football players competing for an NCAA-sanctioned championship, they can't seem to bend.

Right now, those founding principles seem to be ignored when good business deals come along that profit the league, but are useful tools to prevent the things they don't like, like the Ivy League competing for a postseason championship in football.

Maybe the Ivy League presidents might want to consider some new reading material - the original Ivy League agreement. If they just would bother to read it, they'd discover that they could compete for the FCS national championship and wouldn't even violate its basic tenets. They might even get a football game on ESPN, too.

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