By relaxing standards, Ivy League slips off athletic pedestal

John Steadman

December 27, 1991|By John Steadman

There was an unyielding, distinctive way the Ivy League went about conducting and supervising athletics, a noble attitude worthy of respect, applause and emulation. Two tenets of the philosophy concerned football: Freshmen were not eligible to participate at the varsity level and spring practice for the sport wasn't permitted.

The Ivy League had the right idea. It endeavored to keep football in perspective and by establishing its own sets of rules, within the framework of the NCAA, made you feel this was the way sports were intended to be. A purity that the others, such as Notre Dame, Michigan, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, Duke and Penn State, could not claim or remotely attain.

In fact, Notre Dame, according to its retired president, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., attempted to copy Princeton University in establishing its academic goals. All well and good. The Ivy League was indeed an "idyllic island" of purity. Its standards would endure.

Now change will be taking place. The Ivy League has made revisions. It will allow freshmen, if they are good enough, to join the varsity. And spring practice, totally unnecessary, and which cuts in on a youngster's chances to play other sports, is again going to be permitted.

Spring workouts haven't been held on Ivy League campuses since 1956 and its current freshmen rule had its genesis in 1973. Both regulations worked effectively and gave the Ivy League an individuality it deserved because of the original role it played in the shaping of intercollegiate sports during the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s.

Had other colleges, universities and conferences abided by the Ivy League way of doing things there wouldn't be the crass commercialism that exists and therefore detracts from what was intended to be amateur sports -- not the semi-pro aspect that has demeaned almost the entire structure of intercollegiate competition and opened the way to all kinds of violations.

The Ivy League, whether it realized it or not, was a model, a prototype for good rather than greed. It didn't exploit the individual athlete in any manner. Bowl games were unacceptable. Winning, though, was still attainable and much desired. A youngster had the opportunity to compete but, first and foremost, emphasis was directed to the classroom.

But now something disturbing has transpired. The Ivy League is joining in with the rest of the crowd. Too bad. It's not to be construed as a complete abdication of its ideals but it is certainly surrendering some of the things that set it apart and put it in an exemplary position for others to marvel at and revere.

Yes, starting this spring, Ivy League football teams will be able to hold 12 days of practice, or only three fewer than the limit elsewhere. Is that going to make the teams play any better come next fall? Of course not. And then, commencing in 1993, freshmen will be able to join the varsity.

It had been felt that the first year in an Ivy League environment, or any college, for that matter, was difficult enough from the perspective of mental and physical transition. For would-be football players, they should be given the chance for acclimation before having to devote themselves immediately to a sport that involves the enormous demands of football.

The revision in how things are going to be done came about at a meeting of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale. Last summer, this same group agreed to reduce the number of matriculating football recruits from 50 to 35 at each member school, which was an appropriate action.

Harvard and Yale, however, are not in accord with the latest changes and may continue with freshmen football. For most of the others, they are saying economic reasons, along with admission difficulties for athletes, brought on the rule revisions.

Jeffrey H. Orleans, commissioner of the Ivy League, commented, "The major reason for the change is that with broad-based men's and women's programs at every Ivy League school it became important, especially at the smaller schools, to be able to reduce the number of football athletes." So it evolved into a financial matter.

No doubt the Ivy League, with many of its astute leaders studying the proposal, spent long hours of contemplation before voting on the subject. This doesn't mean the old Ivy crowd is turning into a collection of pseudo professionals, offering a haven for tramp athletes, but it throws for a loss the universal belief that at Princeton, Dartmouth and other elite Ivy League locations football was being kept in the range of importance the founding fathers of the game preferred it to be.

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