Not Sporting?

A changing environment for Ivy athletics

College athletics is changing in fundamental ways. Under pressure of nine-figure annual deals for major conferences’ media rights and the advent of liberal transfer privileges and “name-image-likeness” (NIL) compensation for star players, some myths about amateur competition are being shredded. Although the Ivy League since 1954 has stood quaintly apart from much of this upheaval, it is not completely immune. Harvard, home to “42 nation-leading Division I intercollegiate sports teams,” as the College proudly proclaims, might be a bellwether for schools that forswear big-money sports.

The Ivy ideal is the “student-athlete.” An “academic index” forces recruiting to reflect each school’s scholastic standards: no institution can enhance rosters by unduly diluting its admission hurdles. The Ivies eschew athletic scholarships. Coaches expect recruits to stick around for four years so they can teach and mentor students. The athletes don’t jet off for midweek games: they are supposed to go to classes and hit the books as well as the weight room; competition stops during exams; and along with the joy of sport, they emerge educated, with degrees.

That ideal isn’t always attained. There are complaints at Harvard that practice times bump into classes, constraining athletes’ choices of courses or concentrations. It has been intimated that coaches may hint at what academic programs students should pursue, to avoid such conflicts. Some hockey players turn pro before graduating. And not offering athletic scholarships is less limiting now that Ivy members’ enhanced financial aid eliminates or sharply reduces the cost of attendance for many matriculants—some of whom may happen to be athletic recruits.

So in an era when Harvard and its Ivy mates are on equal term-bill footing with other distinguished schools that might appeal to smart student-athletes and the Crimson wants to compete at the Division I level, what issues does the College face?

Turnover. Ivy athletes have not been “one and done” players who make a splash their first season and then enter the draft to play for, say, the NBA. But the possibility now exists that players can transfer and pursue their sport elsewhere without having to wait a year. Will the next Harvard basketball star like Jeremy Lin ’10 or a quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 stay the course? Or might the desire for a pro career (and therefore to face better competition and get better exposure) entice athletes to Stanford, Duke, or Northwestern—or even to a true hoops or football powerhouse?

Coaching. That possibility changes a coach’s recruiting worries. A model predicated on bringing people up over four years would be tested severely if a team’s centerpiece transfers. Nor could Harvard, with a high academic-index threshold, expect to compensate readily by attracting replacement transfers.

Parity. Although the Ivies have long maintained their status quo, new strains could emerge. If some schools and coaches really want to win, might they make a pass at students who enrolled at other Ivy institutions but find themselves dissatisfied with their role, playing time, or coach’s style—and might newly energized boosters want to explore the NIL channel? In turn, might smaller institutions find the whole business unfair or distasteful, at least for the most expensive sports? The University of Southern California/UCLA defections from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten involved lucre more akin to Ivy schools’ endowments than their athletic budgets—but they indicate that the seemingly unthinkable can come to pass.

Costs. Harvard can afford to underwrite many of its ambitions in the classroom and on campus. But it doesn’t cut blank checks. The hockey and basketball venues were renovated in the middle of last decade, and the boathouses are being beautifully redone now. Costs have not been fully disclosed but are likely very considerably north of $50 million. The sailing facilities are taking on water, and a Stadium renovation/reconfiguration, on the Harvard Campaign wish list, was never funded. Project managers have been shocked by inflating Boston-area construction costs. So at some point, maintaining the athletics facilities is going to absorb a lot of cash: a difficult ask given the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ financial constraints.

Changing demographics. Ivy athletics in the Title IX era are, happily, fully open to women as well as men. But as student bodies have changed (witness the rise in international matriculants), so have their backgrounds and interests. Think more high school soccer and less football. Harvard has been deft in making football games a Friday night go-to thing (lots of undergraduates aren’t awake for Saturday noon kickoffs or have other plans)—but the days of robust crowds are long past: excluding The Game, no Ivy football program averaged even 7,000 attendees per contest last season. And so on. Come the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, Harvard and peers may revise athletic, legacy, and other admissions preferences as they struggle to maintain diverse classes, so further changes may be in store.

So this seems a moment ripe for rethinking. Harvard is not about to emulate the University of Chicago’s 1939 drop-kicking of football, but might it decide not to offer every sport as a Division I program? Johns Hopkins, no intellectual slouch, adores lacrosse, and competes nationally—but does anyone know what it does in any other sport? Might Harvard ultimately focus on clear opportunities for preeminence (rowing, squash) while otherwise emphasizing club competition and fitness?

The changes in the NCAA highlight something fundamental. Intellectually, Harvard’s aspirations are second to none. But no one pretends that Ivy football and basketball are on a par with the leading programs (and a good thing, too). As that gap widens, opening new opportunities elsewhere, Crimson student-athletes and coaches face new choices. After 70 years, Harvard athletics might be in for a recalibration, too.

—John S. Rosenberg

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