Asked last week to decide whether their institutions should break with tradition and finally award athletic scholarships to football players, the presidents of the Patriot League decided to punt. And while an official decision has been put off for at least two more years, simmering disagreement among the academically strong Northeastern colleges that belong to the league has stoked fears that the conference, long considered a sister group to the prestigious and scholarship-free Ivy League, could break apart.
The Patriot League, founded in the late 1980s, is in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). Its core institutions that participate in all sports are Bucknell University, Colgate University, College of the Holy Cross, Lafayette College and Lehigh University. What originally bound these institutions together was their decision not to award athletic scholarships. As a result, they often played only Ivy League institutions in “out of conference” contests because of their similar approach to scholarships.
In the past decade, though, individual members of the Patriot League slowly began awarding athletic scholarships in all sports but football. Lafayette was the last holdout, finally deciding to join its peers in 2006. The decision to remain scholarship-free in football, however, has tenuously stood since then.
“Following extensive discussions at their meetings [last] week, the Patriot League Council of Presidents elected to table a decision to adjust the current need-limited model of financial aid for two years pending additional deliberations related to the League's strategic direction," the Council of Presidents announced in a joint statement. "We had discussions about various financial aid models and recognized and evaluated the benefits as well as the potential costs associated with athletic merit aid for football. League presidents expressed their commitment to the stability and long-term positioning of the League."
Though the presidents’ meetings and roll-call votes are confidential, officials from member institutions have made no secret of their disagreements regarding the football scholarship issue.
For example, Daniel H. Weiss, Lafayette president, has made numerous public statements bemoaning football scholarships.
"I wasn't satisfied that it can be done without incremental cost and I don't think that it's appropriate at this time in the life of this college to be putting more money into football when there are other programs and needs that are more pressing," Weiss said to the college’s student newspaper before last week’s meeting. "My position is that I don't believe that this initiative is in the best interest ... of the League. And I don't support it. I think we can accomplish our goals just as effectively without it."
Officials from other member institutions — including Dick Biddle, coach of seven league championship teams at Colgate — have spoken out in favor of football scholarships. The main fear among many observers, however, is that this disagreement could splinter the conference. Already, Fordham University, an “associate” member of the conference, decided to award football scholarships this season, and officials there have said the university would go to another conference if the rest of the league did not join them in the practice.
“Fordham has an agreement with the Patriot League through 2012 to remain an associate member for football,” Matt Dougherty, a league spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “They will remain ineligible for the League title as long as they are awarding athletic merit aid and the League only permits need-based financial aid. That agreement was instituted in June 2009 after Fordham announced they would begin awarding athletic merit aid, and went into effect in 2010.”
Proponents of football scholarships argue that they are necessary to boost the on-field competitiveness of the league's teams, allowing these small-time programs to play higher-profile teams that may offer their institutions more exposure. Also, supporters of the switch said that scholarships will bring in more players from low-income backgrounds that otherwise would not have considered their institutions.
Opponents counter that adding scholarships will necessitate having to lower admissions standards to fill football rosters — given that football players tend to have weaker academic credentials than their peers in other sports — and end up costing the institutions and their students more money to foot the bill. They also argue that such a move would not be prudent in this time of tight finances.
Fordham officials, however, note that adding football scholarships will not cost them significantly in the long run. The team hopes to get to 60 scholarships in three more years, but this year it only added 14, worth about $700,000. By lowering the number of players on the team and easing into offering scholarships, Joe DiBari, spokesman for Fordham athletics, said, the institution will eventually spend as much on football scholarships for fewer players as it did on need-based aid for more players. Though scholarship size varies from institution to institution, Patriot League institutions have relatively comparable tuition and could make a similar move.
Since last week’s meeting and non-decision on the football scholarships, league officials and those from its member institutions have maintained their silence on the issue and the seeming elephant-in-the-room disagreement. Faculty members and other observers, however, are just now getting to have their say.
Arthur J. Rothkopf, a former president at Lafayette under whose leadership the college stayed scholarship-free in all sports, told Inside Higher Ed that he is firmly against his erstwhile institution offering football scholarships.
“In my personal view, I think it’s a mistake,” Rothkopf said. “In intercollegiate athletics, which in my opinion is a cesspool, the Patriot and Ivy Leagues stood out. Then, the Patriot League went down the wrong road by offering some scholarships. I think it’s a bad idea to have athletic scholarships generally, but this whole thing will just be compounded by football."
For institutions like those in the Patriot League, which tend to have solid academic reputations, the often academically weaker students attracted by football scholarships are not worth the cost, Rothkopf argued. Of the disagreement between member institutions on this issue, he added, “I hope the league survives.”
Other academics around the league are not worried about football scholarships.
“I don’t think it would be harmful to our reputation,” said James R. McIntosh, sociology professor and faculty athletics representative at Lehigh, a college with a traditionally strong football program. “We’re not going to lower our admissions standards. Given the quality of education that all of our institutions provide, it’s quite likely that there’s a sense in the faculty at various schools that they feel it's wrong to go this way. But, that’s not been an issue here. I mean, this might be more harmful to our pocketbooks. The biggest complaint I would have is the financial thing, so long as we hold our [admissions] standards, which as far as I know we have in basketball scholarships and for those in other sports.”
Kenneth Belanger, biology professor and faculty athletics representative at Colgate, defended the practice for other reasons.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to consider scholarships for football,” Belanger said. “Our administration, faculty and athletics department has been looking at it for the past decade. Also, the move is supported by some of the reasons we moved to offering scholarships in a number of other different sports. The preliminary evidence suggests that we’ve been able to enhance the [academic] quality of our student-athletes via scholarships.”
Regardless of where officials from the various member institutions stand on football scholarships, Belanger echoed the call for officials to think of the league’s larger survival when ultimately making a decision.
“Sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly, football tends to be a lightning rod for a lot of what’s going on in college athletics,” Belanger said. “What people here see, though, is that the survival of the league is very important. If something were to happen and this league were to disband, it would be hard for this group of institutions to find other like institutions to compete against. That’s true for coaches, administrators and faculty. We, as faculty, like to see our schools play against schools that are similar. So, I think the survival of the league is essential, and I think that may mean compromise in some form.”