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The Decision: The Presidential View: Bucknell's Thoughtful Study

Last Monday, the Patriot League presidents delivered a monumental decision to allow football scholarships.

Since that day, the pride and joy of Lewisburg, Bucknell men's basketball, rated No. 70 in the Real Time RPI rankings and home to the Sojka Psychos, has not won a single game.

Coincidence?

It might not seem that way to a multitude of folks who have assumed that the Bison - who, at times has seemed to be a school that values hoops over halfbacks - were against allowing football scholarships all the way through.

Reading the official statement from Bucknell president Dr. John C. Bravman, too, it looks like football scholarships are seen as much as a challenge to their athletics program than something to be embraced.


I appreciate the thoughtful way the Presidents' Council of the Patriot League has assessed this decision. Bucknell is proud to be part of a League where the strong spirit of competition is secondary to the shared goal of offering student-athletes an outstanding learning experience, and we will uphold that commitment as we work through the implications of this decision for our football program and our university.

It's an official statement that's as tepid as it is cryptic.  There was more praise for the process than the result.

Rather than come out and say that they were relishing the challenge of fielding football teams with scholarships, the emphasis is on the "thoughtful way" they came to the decision without mentioning any opinion on the decision itself.  And anytime the word "implications" is used in any context, that's never considered an endorsement for anything.

At about the same time the decision went public, President Bravman also made public a "Council Update" on Bucknell's web site that gives even more information about his thought process as well on this very issue.

It's worth breaking down, since it not only shows President Bravman's viewpoints on the matter, but it exposes a lot about the process and discussions that resulted in the decision as well.

As you will recall, in fall 2010 we hosted a campus forum about this question and how such a decision would impact Bucknell. In December 2010, the Presidents’ Council voted to table the question for up to two years to allow further time for financial analysis of the impact that adding athletic merit scholarships in football might have on the league and on member institutions. Title IX commitments would have to expand accordingly. I have no illusions about the likelihood of there being other cost impacts as well that are difficult to predict.
A bit of explanation before moving forward.

All of Patriot League schools' football teams are "need-based aid", which means that all incoming football players go through the financial aid office to determine need.  From there, it's determined whether incoming students can get their "loans" turned into "grants".

For NCAA purposes, these are considered "scholarship money", and the athletes count as "scholarship athletes", even though, in reality, recruited football players in Patriot League schools go through more hoops than recruited players at, say, Penn State and Delaware.

Since December 2010, and notably late last year, the Presidents’ Council has had intensifying discussions about this question. We have looked at such issues as the following:
  • The academic goals of the Patriot League and its member institutions.
  • The student-athlete experience, including in such areas as admissions, retention, diversity and graduation.
  • The long history of football at Patriot League member institutions and the support for these programs on each campus and among alumni.
  • The expressed intent of Fordham to end league affiliation if it is not permitted the right to award merit aid scholarships in football. Any departure of a league affiliate or member in football would bring numerous risks for the future of Patriot League football competition and league continuance.
  • The possibility of increasing the stability of the league, via growth in membership, should permissive merit aid be adopted.
  • The financial impact on each institution of moving from football student-athletes receiving need-based financial aid to receiving athletic merit aid, including Title IX implications.
  • The impact on each institution of a permissive system for merit aid for football student-athletes in the Patriot League that does not require athletic merit scholarships but that allows them.
  • The problems currently affecting several college football programs at large public universities.
These conversations among the presidents have been thorough and candid.

This part of his statement is fascinating because it seems to have been a detailed list of talking points of the confidential meeting.  (For example, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when the presidents sat and discussed "the support for these programs on each campus and among alumni.")

What really jumps out is his mention of "the expressed intent of Fordham to end league affiliation if it's not permitted to [allow football scholarships]".  Fordham does seem to have been ready to leave the Patriot League in football over the matter - and it makes it even more extraordinary that they stuck with the Patriot League, despite being unable to qualify for the Patriot League title, awards, or records for the last three years.

But aside from that bombshell, it seems to be group of talking points centered around the question, "What are the ramifications of football scholarships?" rather than "Theologically, ought the Patriot League have football scholarships?"

Sure, there appear to have been some theological points in terms of discussion on "problems affecting football programs at large public universities" , "academic goals" and the "student-athlete experience", but it also appears that many of those concerns were easily addressed, or termed non-applicable.

For example, any debate on "academic goals" concerning football players were probably taken off the table quickly, considering that the Patriot League's Academic Index, very similar to the Ivy League's system to ensure academic integrity, will remain in effect for the foreseeable future.  If anything, scholarships would open up high-academic recruits that were previously unavailable to Patriot League schools since other schools were offering conventional football scholarships.

Instead, the system seemed to have a lot more specific thoughts about financial issues - the "financial impact on each institution of moving [to football scholarships] including Title IX issues,", and "the impact of a permissive system that doesn't require them but allows them".

Even the discussion on "problems affecting football programs at large universities" might have been more financial in nature as well.

But as you'll see by President Bravman's later comments, , it seems like his biggest interest of all is that one concerning the "student-athlete experience" at Bucknell.

I write now about these matters because, based on the recent pace of the presidents’ discussions, I believe...that there will be a decisive majority vote to permit football scholarships. Should the Presidents’ Council reach this conclusion, it likely will become unavoidable for Bucknell to add merit-aid scholarships in football, not least to protect the health and well-being of student-athletes competing in that sport. 
If we add the equivalent of three to five merit-aid scholarships that we project would meet the new roster guidelines, we are confident that this increased cost would be recouped in part through Bowl Championship Series-related revenues that would be available if we provide merit-aid scholarships in football. 
During our campus forum in fall 2010, I discussed the variety of other issues listed above as they pertain to Bucknell. Clearly we will have to remain sensitive to the many implications of any decision to permit merit aid in football. I am proud to say that I believe that Bucknell takes great care in providing its student-athletes with an outstanding learning experience and in striving to meet the high ideals we all hold for ourselves as a university. The University has moved carefully in the past managing the addition of merit aid in its other athletics programs, and we will take even greater care should the Patriot League allow this merit aid program.

It's pretty clear that "health and well-being" for the kids playing football weighed heavily in President Bravman's position - but it's also clear that he's equally as concerned about the added costs involved to the athletic department, stating that they will take "even greater care" with managing this program as well.

One of the big issues that Bucknell might need to deal with is scholarship costs.  Somewhere, the Bison will need to get more money to pay for this change in aid.

President Bravman talks, tantalizingly, about "BCS-level" revenues.

It doesn't mean that Bucknell will be competing against Akron in the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl anytime soon.

While it's a little-known part of the BCS money machine, part of its revenue sharing involves transfer payments to FCS conferences.

But not, currently, to all of them.

Up until 2010, the BCS distributed $225,000 to eight FCS conferences: the Big Sky, CAA, MEAC, Missouri Valley, OVC, SoCon, Southland and SWAC.

In 2011, the BCS distrubuted $250,000 to the eight conferences above - and a ninth, the Big South.

Only the (now-defunct) Great West, Ivy, Patriot, Pioneer, and Northeast conferences did not get a piece of this revenue.

All of these five conferences either were below the minimum number of schools for an autobid, or did not allow its members to offer the maximum number of conventional football scholarships.

Offering football scholarships will allow the Patriot League to receive this new revenue source - but it won't come close to balancing the athletics budget in Lewisburg.

But it might allow schools like Bucknell to schedule what is called "guarantee games" against FBS schools.

FBS schools want home games.  And for those home games, they want opponents that count towards bowl eligibility, and are (in their minds) easy wins.  To do so, almost all of them offer cash "guarantees" for schools to come in, and more and more frequently they're offering these opportunities to FCS schools.

These guarantees are becoming a regular part of the budget at some football programs.  Conservatively, it can mean an extra $200,000 or more a year - which can help fund some of these scholarships, too.

Patriot League scholarships makes a school like Bucknell more attractive to a school like Penn State in terms of a home opponent.  To both sides, it's a win/win: Lewisburg is very close to State College, so they don't have to ask for money for flights, while a trip to Beaver Stadium can be an incredible highlight for a football player's collegiate career.  And for Penn State, it's a cheaper price tag, and still a counter for bowl eligibility.

President Bravman could have meant either revenue source, but that part of their thesis is the same: that scholarships can offer new revenue opportunities, and also make a better experience for the student-athletes.

*****

While the initial statement only mentioned the "thoughtfulness of the decision", another release by President Bravman today further goes over some of the agonizing he made concerning football scholarships.

Like his first communique, it's worth going looking at more closely.


During the deliberations of the Presidents' Council, I have had to accept that any decision of the league to allow football merit aid ultimately would compel Bucknell to make a choice: (1) implement merit aid as the other league participants were likely to do under those circumstances; (2) not implement merit aid and have our football players compete against scholarship athletes weekend after weekend; or (3) end football at Bucknell. 
In my initial note to campus a few weeks ago I expressed the opinion that Option 1 seems to me unavoidable. I did this not to truncate further discussion but to be direct and forthright following more than a year of work in which others and I examined all possible options.

While it might seem a little harsh, it's the statement of a president who has obviously thought this through end to end and has thought about it extensively.  He then goes on to explain his reasoning:

I cannot in good conscience support Option (2), given the disparities it would lead to on the field, and given the grave effect it would have on our recruiting. 

In my opinion, "on-the-field disparity" and the well-being of the student-athlete made it very clear which side of the argument President Bravman is on here.  He was not going to wreck the experience of Bucknell football players, nor put them at risk for injury.

As for the thermonuclear option:


As for Option (3), recognizing that we have a football program that is more than 100 years old, enjoys the support of many alumni, opens doors to the University to many outstanding studentathletes, and is part of Bucknell's meaningful participation in the Patriot League, I do not believe it is worth pretending that this is a realistic choice. Amongst other considerations, I believe that the Board would not permit this option, nor would I support it. 
Bucknell also cannot continue to belong to the Patriot League, which sponsors athletics within NCAA Division I, and move football to NCAA Division III, where athletic meritaid scholarships are prohibited. NCAA rules do not allow Division I schools to sponsor other sports at the Division III level. (In the past some exceptions to this rule were granted but the NCAA policy is now unequivocal.)

A firmer putdown of disbanding football could not have been written - while also explaining that it's impossible to downgrade to D-III football while maintaining a D-I basketball program.

But there's more interesting statements in there as well:

Such discussions have forced every member of the Patriot League to confront the sometimes uncomfortable fact that we surrender some institutional independence in return for being part of a league. But membership in the Patriot League has been beneficial to members in ways meaningful to our academic reputations, admissions, financial stability, campus life and alumni. If we wish to remain part of a league that has a strong commitment to academics, there is no alternative; there is, for instance, no viable option that uses an academic index system for athlete admissions, which in the Patriot League is and will remain the most stringent in NCAA Division I sports. Bucknell is for good reason proud to be part of this exceptional league. 
As a relative newcomer to the league, I have been reassured by the conversations among the presidents that the Patriot League takes seriously the principle of academics first for its student-athletes. Ultimately, the presidents' consensus was that while every institution had different concerns about a policy change, making the change had many benefits and that the high standards of each institution gave us assurance that it would be implemented in the right way.

I highlight "institutional independence" because I think this is an oft-overlooked part of this discussion.

One of the founding pillars of the Patriot League (and the Ivy League, on which the Patriot League was modeled) is presidential control.  But one of the corollaries to that is institutional independence, too: each school has the independence to pursue athletics in the way it seems fit.

In many leagues, where the conference controls the purse strings, this is not the case.  If Iowa's president decided he wanted to drop football, the Big Ten could turn off the spigot of money.

Not so in the Patriot League, though, where the league is a collective of presidents talking at a presidential level.

It seems to me like the "scholarship vs. non-scholarship" debate is less on morality and more on principle.

It's not that the debate involves whether it's morally wrong or right to offer scholarships - after all, Vanderbilt and Stanford do that, and many Ivy League schools essentially do it as well.

But it's the debate whether it should be a principal right for each school to be able to do as it sees fit - if a school wants to be non-scholarship in basketball, it should be allowed to do so, dammit!

It seems to me like President Bravman sees the bigger picture - while it would be nice to be able to offer complete athletics autonomy with the presidents, the fact is that the NCAA rules are written with the assumption of football scholarships, and the Division I NCAA community care about those rules.

Like it or not, it's the landscape that exists, and the Patriot League needs to find a way to co-exist with this world without compromising core principles.

The NCAA has set up a structure where there is money available from the BCS for schools offering a minimum amount of scholarship aid.

This structure has meant the spawning of "guarantee games" available from FBS schools to football programs operating in a certain way..

But perhaps the most important of all, other members who might want to join the Patriot League want to preserve that aid structure, too.

His statements acknowledge the theory allowing football scholarships are pushing schools towards scholarships - but also acknowledge that the benefits (different, interesting matchups, better student-athlete welfare, better choice in expansion candidates) than the costs (releasing some autonomy).  And as if to underscore the point that other principles aren't being compromised, he further reasserts the Academic Index, and the stringent academic requirements for admission, will very much remain in place.

These peculiar couple of paragraphs also make me wonder something else, too.  In ways, it reads like a position paper on all the possible options in FCS for the Patriot League.

With "there is no viable option that uses an academic index for admissions," he makes it seem like the academic index something vitally important to each president - as if other conferences, as varied from the CAA to the NEC or the Pioneer Football League, are non-starters as a result.

Likewise, the note on "surrendering institutional independence" seems, too, to emphasize that anyone looking for another solution for their football program means giving up that presidential control, too, that all the presidents seem to hold dear.  Only the Patriot League and Ivy League have this separation of powers - not the CAA, NEC, or Pioneer Football League.

Even the explanation on the inability of individual programs to drop football to Division III seems to be something pointed to the other presidents.

It's almost as if there's a footnote in his comments that say, "There's no other conference out there that will choose this limitation that you want, and the Ivy League ain't looking for new members.  As for D-III, that's just crazy talk."

There seems to be a little bite to the remarks you detect in there the more you read them over - as if he's trying to send a message to somebody.

For Bucknell, the spread between the current budget invested in need-based aid for football and reaching 60 scholarship equivalencies based on need and merit is perhaps five scholarship equivalencies. (Note that the aid that comprises these equivalencies may be distributed amongst many more than 60 individuals.) I am confident that we can manage through any scholarship costs that exceed the new revenues mentioned above. We will also match the new resources allocated to merit-aid in football with similar investments in merit-aid scholarships for our women's sports, in keeping with our commitment to gender equity and Title IX compliance. This fact means that we will be able to expand our capacity to recruit the best student-athletes to our women's athletic programs. I also am reassured by 3 the fact Bucknell has faced before the challenge of implementing merit-aid scholarships in different sports and has done so in a way that upholds our core values.
This nets it out nicely: for the Bison, the gap between their current need-based budget and merit-based aid is five scholarships.  (This clarification was very important: from his original statements, it made it seem like Bucknell needed 3-5 scholarships per year to get to 60, which would be an entirely different math problem.)

Without financial aid, the cost of a Bucknell education is currently $54,420.  While it's not exactly the total amount a scholarship would cost the university, the back-of-the-napkin calculation tells you that the cost of five new football scholarships is $544,200 per year - 5 for new scholarship football players, and 5 women's scholarships that serve as an offset for Title IX purposes.

For Fordham, the cost of football scholarships was insignificant.  They were already spending the equivalent of 60 scholarships in need-based aid, already accounted in Title IX.  Football scholarships were only a change in method - they went from having to go through the financial aid office to no longer having that requirement.  They were going to be spending the money anyway.

For Bucknell, it's a significant increase in spending per year - but not a dealbreaker, perhaps, if you count the extra revenue.

Still In 2010, Bucknell's EADA report says that the Bison spent $17 million for the entire athletics department.  Going from $17 million to $17.5 million per year is still a 3% increase in spending - not insignificant in an environment where members of higher education are tightening their belts.


Any decision that is not entirely the University's comes with some discomfort. But as a member of the Patriot League, we have faced changes like this before, and we will implement this new policy carefully here again. This change strengthens the league in many ways. It will strengthen our ability to recruit outstanding student-athletes, in football and in women's sports; and it leaves to Bucknell the responsibility for managing well the financial and moral implications to our university. We have met that challenge the right way before, and we will do so again as we move forward as part of a league in which we are justifiably a proud and successful participant.

President Bravman's original comments led some to believe that  his embrace of scholarships was something less than total.  But with this extra clarification, a picture emerges of very tough, thoughtful decision to go forward.

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