Once known for its world-class academics, the Ivy League has recently entered the reality of big-time American universities: excel in athletics, and cast studying aside, in order to maintain relevancy. In order to avoid suffering the ignominy of becoming the Sun Belt Conference of the Northeast, the league has made the prudent decision to tie its institutions’ names to their sporting successes. It’s simply really. How many kids say they want to attend perennial SEC cupcake Louisiana-Monroe? Now, how many want to go to the University of Alabama? Indeed, Division I schools’ livelihoods rely on winning and star athletes to attract tuition-paying students that keep their universities afloat.
Ivy League presidents and their athletic directors are pretty smart and have slowly come to recognize this phenomenon. It’s clear that the league that used to promote excellence in the classroom now does so on the field. Just take a look at the professional accomplishments of the league’s alumni. Former Harvard standout Jeremy Lin is on his 3rd major NBA contract, making over $11 million this year. Ex-Harvard quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick single-handedly held the entire New York Jets franchise for ransom last summer over a new contract extension. Former Dartmouth runner Abbey D’Agostino grabbed the world’s attention with her gritty finish at the Rio Olympics.
And it’s not just the renaissance of pro athletes that have signaled this new direction, as the league has positioned its teams in a more mainstream fashion to encourage their success. The six Ivies that compete in college hockey play in the ECAC along with the likes of Union College, St. Lawrence University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. If the league cared about its academic reputation and purity would it enter a league so clearly outside its traditional profile? But the strategy has worked: six of the ECAC’s past ten champions have come from its Ivy members, with the Harvard men making it to the 2017 Frozen Four. The league also added its first conference tournament in basketball this year, the last Division I conference to do so. Just think how much studying those athletes could have done if they weren’t traveling to Philadelphia for the weekend tourney. This new emphasis on sports has worked here, too; Ivy League qualifiers have caused five March Madness upsets since 2010.
This renewed pursuit towards athletic relevance will eventually reach its logical conclusion: conference expansion based around football to ensure TV exposure and qualification to lucrative bowl games. Every major league has done it, academics and logistical common sense be damned. This is major college athletics after all. You either claw hand and fist for those sweet TV dollars, or you go the way of the Western Athletic Conference, who went from showcasing Saturday night Boise State football to begging California Baptist University (a real school, I checked) to become its 9th member.
With those stakes in mind, let’s take a look at four schools that the Ivy League should add to continue push into mainstream American college athletics (the league currently has eight members, and twelve are required to host a conference championship in football and thus be eligible for big-time bowl games).
The Scarlet Knights have had as much of an impact on the Big Ten Conference as segways have had on transportation; no one takes them seriously, and it just doesn’t make sense that they’re still around. But a move to the Ivy League would offer the chance to win more than zero football games and would give the league another school whose sole focus is on sports. Rutgers’ student body would also help shed the league’s nerd image that it is desperately trying to distance itself from. Few things say “fun>school” more clearly than a bunch of STI-ridden Jersey kids smashing beer pong tables before a September football game.
Adding BC would directly weaken the rival Atlantic Coast Conference, though not by much, considering the Eagles routinely finish near the bottom of the standings in both football and basketball. No matter, their addition would provide a natural rivalry with Harvard; The Schools Situated in Suburbs Adjacent To Boston Bowl would be a raucous affair. Eagles athletes are also a very social bunch and love going out to eat. BC would be the first Catholic school in the league, which is fitting, given that their only football highlight of the past forty years is Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary being answered.
No institution in recent memory, perhaps besides the University of Miami, has done more to champion athletics over academics than the Tar Heels. Their noble quest to protect their athletes’ eligibilities from the NCAA’s tyrannical academic requirements at all costs can serve as an example of how to become a sports-centric university for the rest of the league. In IvySpeak, UNC would become that rare professor that guides students to their goals, challenging them to make the most of themselves. In UNCSpeak, the Tar Heels’ addition would act as a paper class for the Ivy League towards passing Athletic Relevance 101.
First and foremost, the Penguins would provide a little excitement in the mascot department for a league currently comprised of staid nicknames like the Big Red, Big Green, and Crimson. But the school also showed tremendous vision in prioritizing athletics over academics when they hired former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel as university president in 2014. Tressel was fired by Ohio State in 2011 for attempting to cover up his players’ sale of bowl game memorabilia in exchange for tattoos from a local drug dealer. His actions violated a number of NCAA rules and resulted in multiple sanctions against the Buckeyes. Three short years later, Youngstown State hired Tressel to run their entire university! This is the kind of moral bankruptcy that the Ivy League must encourage if it is to become a force in college athletics.
Ivy League administrators may never admit that they’re slowly positioning the conference to become a major player in college sports. They don’t have to. Their actions aimed at promoting athletic success and minimizing academic rigor speak for themselves. The league is inching its way toward becoming a Power 6 conference alongside the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC, with conference expansion a crucial part of this transition. Soon enough, Yale will be competing with Florida on the recruiting trail for that five-star cornerback with attitude issues. Harvard and Princeton will battle for an automatic qualifying spot in the Cotton Bowl. Columbia will face NCAA sanctions for improper benefits stemming from a booster buying its players new Jordans.
These are exciting times for the Ivy League and for college sports, as the country’s last holdout to emphasize the student over the athlete changes its direction toward the mainstream. American universities live and die by their accomplishments made on the field, advancements made in the classroom mere bonuses to complement conference championships, national titles, and television exposure. The Ivy League has finally realized this phenomenon, and is now gunning for the top.
- Andrew D'Anieri