Pulse of the Sports World

by Dan Bornstein | 11/14/13 2:46pm

As the college basketball season gets underway, there is little doubt that fans across the Ivy League are contemplating what Harvard University’s stunning NCAA tournament win last year might mean for the program. In the first round, the 14th-seeded Crimson upset third-seeded University of New Mexico, shocking the nation and busting many brackets. Harvard’s win was an indicator to many that an Ivy League team can indeed compete at the highest level of Division I basketball.

For those wondering whether Harvard will try to use the momentum from March’s shocking victory to transform its program, remember that the norms and structure of Ivy League athletics will effectively guard against the school’s adoption of the problematic business-like mentality that has overtaken college athletics. The Ivy League, laudably, has stood out as a conference that does not subordinate its academic institutions for the corporatized world of college sports.

For example, consider the difference between the Ivy League and the major conferences, such as the Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Ivies’ devotion to broad-based participation means that Dartmouth can house 34 varsity teams, far outnumbering the offerings of bigger-name programs that tend to devote their resources to just a few teams. In those conferences, there’s a ton of pressure on basketball and football coaches to generate winning records that secure lucrative television contracts, which in turn help finance the rest of the athletic department.

If Harvard were to aim for a robust national schedule, playing many teams out of conference, it would compromise the student-athlete focus of Ivy League sports. Students would have to miss class in order to travel mid-week to away games. There’s a reason that most of the Ivies’ basketball games take place only on Friday and Saturdays nights — it’s so that students can play a full schedule without having to miss class. When the Big Green plays at Cornell University in February, it travels directly to Columbia University for a game the following night. And, for the same reason, the Ivy League is the only conference not to hold a post-season tournament to determine which team gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Instead, the regular season champion moves on to March Madness.

Altogether, this contrasts with the increasingly corporate environment of college basketball that many of us enjoy as sports fans. We can count on seeing rivalry matchups on ESPN on a Monday night without worrying about it interfering with our NFL Sundays. For one week in early March, some of the strongest programs face-off at Madison Square Garden, with each win meaning that the team and its devout fans can stay at least one more day in New York City.

While no doubt this atmosphere gains exposure for the top teams and players, it reflects the diminishing role of academics within the college sports world. If, as the NCAA commercial tells us, “Most of us go pro in something other than sports,” then their schedules certainly aren’t helping students succeed in ways other than sports.

Decades ago it was the Ivy League’s athletics that were in the national spotlight. Up until the 1970s, Dartmouth football played a national schedule and generated revenue from sources outside the College. But Ivy League athletic administrators grew cautious of how the growing business-like mentality in college sports might undercut the League’s long-standing academic values.

“The Ivy League saw where the direction the college football was going and made a conscious decision to put a heavy emphasis on the student-athlete,” director of football operations Brian Mann said.

The Ivies are proof that you don’t need large revenue-producing teams to sustain the athletic program — a reality that exists at only a handful of schools. Alumni contributions are a significant part of each team’s budget, via the “Friends of Dartmouth” groups.

And, of course, bucking the national trend of mid-week travel and an extensive national schedule does not by any means suggest that a team cannot be competitive. What Harvard’s recent success will do is catch the attention of top recruits, which may set the tone for another upset when March comes around.