Fishbein: Going For The Gold

by Dan Fishbein | 10/6/15 6:30pm

Exactly one football team in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association went undefeated with no ties last year — the Harvard Crimson. Unlike teams with a loss on their record — such as Ohio State University and the University of Oregon, which duked it out in the inaugural College Football Playoff — the Crimson went home for the holidays, barred from postseason football by an archaic conference rule banning Ivy League football teams from participating in national championships.

This year, the ban has the potential to directly affect the Big Green. Returning 15 starters from last year’s team that went 8-2 overall and 6-1 in the Ivy League, finishing second, Dartmouth has the talent to win its first conference championship since 1996. Through their first three games, the team has outscored opponents 121-37. The team won its conference opener last Saturday, beating the University of Pennsylvania Quakers 41-20 in Philadelphia. During that game, Dalyn Williams ’16, the Big Green quarterback who has his sights set on playing at the next level, completed 23 of 25 passes — the highest completion percentage in school history — for 336 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for 73 yards and two more scores on his way to an Ivy League Player of the Week award. If the Big Green can pull off a win against Harvard University in Cambridge on Oct. 30, they would be in the driver’s seat for an Ivy League title. The Big Green clearly has the ability to not only dominate Ivy League competition but prove that it is one of the best teams in Division 1-A. Unfortunately, though, the postseason ban created decades ago in a starkly different football environment would prevent the team from asserting its national dominance after the regular season.

When the Ivy League was created in 1945, the university presidents of the Ancient Eight decided to formally object to the college sports landscape by barring their teams from participating in postseason events. Since that time, however, these bans for all sports except one have been lifted.Supporters of this rule often cite two reasons for its existence — maintaining tradition and the priority of academics for Ivy League athletes. When examined more closely, however, neither of these reasons carry much weight.

“Other commissioners would love to see the Ivy League be part of the playoffs, but they understand it’s a long-standing traditional decision,” Robin Harris, the executive director of the Ivy League conference, told the Harvard Crimson last year. “They would love to see us and they mention it occasionally, but they understand that we’re not participating.”

Some old traditions should indeed fail. The rule preventing Ivy League football teams from participating in championship games may have made sense at one point — back when most of the postseason college football bowl games took place in the Jim Crow south, where black players were met with hostility. One of the reasons for creating the ban was so that teams could protect their own players. Nowadays, though, this threat of violence no longer exists to the same extent.

The second reason for the rule — that players should focus on academics rather than competing for national championships — is inherently contradictory. While other postseason events such as the NCAA Basketball Tournament take place in March at a time when school is in session, the FCS playoffs — the postseason event to which the Ivy League football champion rejects a bid every year — takes place from the last weekend of November to the first weekend of January, overlapping with the winter interim period. It therefore does not follow that certain athletic teams are allowed to skip school for their championships, while football players cannot participate in a championship that, for many, takes place during vacation.

A third possible reason, and the one that I think is most likely, is that the Ivy League is afraid of damaging its reputation. Due to the structure of Division I NCAA football, the Ivy League winner is not allowed to participate in the same postseason games in which larger schools such as the Universities of Michigan and Alabama play. Because of this, if an Ivy League team accepted a bid to the Division I-A FCS playoff, they would be competing against teams such as South Dakota State University and the University of Montana. Since Ivy League schools claim superiority in the nation, football losses to these less prestigious state schools could reflect poorly in the media.

But a practice based off a largely extinct societal practice should not simply be treated as tradition. As times change, rules should too. Given its historical context and that context’s irrelevance today, the Ivy League should reconsider this rule’s existence. It is not in the Ivy League spirit — and especially in the Dartmouth spirit — to shy away from competition. Being undefeated does not look as good when you cannot go on to win in the postseason.