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The Patriot League took the final step Monday in a 15-year transition that has bottom-line implications in both monetary and philosophical terms. Football programs, the last holdout that (when it came to financial aid) exemplified the league’s founding stance of putting academics first, athletics second, will join all 22 other sports in being allowed to award athletic merit aid.

The move leaves the Ivy League as the only all-sports Division I conference in the National Collegiate Athletic Association not to offer athletic scholarships.

Officials of the Patriot League and its members said the decision, endorsed by the presidents of its 10 well-regarded colleges, does not run counter to the conference’s ethos or its “scholar-athlete model.”

“Our intention is to recruit and attract the brightest and the best, and I think we’ve demonstrated our ability to do that,” said Carolyn Schlie Femovich, the league’s executive director. “This decision, I think, is just an affirmation of those values.”

Despite Monday’s laudatory tones, the gradual progression toward across-the-board athletic aid has been divisive for college leaders, past and present. (It’s also unclear how many presidents agreed on the issue – multiple officials wouldn’t go beyond saying there was a “consensus,” emphasizing that deliberations are confidential.)

The Patriot League formed 26 years ago under the precept that none of its founding institutions -- Bucknell, Colgate and Lehigh Universities; College of the Holy Cross and Lafayette College -- would offer athletic scholarships, giving their Ivy peers someone to compete against. But over the past two decades, as its membership has expanded, so too have its aid policies. In 1996, five years after Fordham University and the U.S. Naval Academy joined the league, it moved to allow basketball scholarships. That policy was applied to all sports except football in 2001, and that year, American and Georgetown Universities joined the league (the latter in football only; it plays all other sports in the Big East Conference).

Because of their shared ideals, the Patriot League primarily competes against Ivy League institutions in its out-of-conference games. The deviation from the Ivy League is troubling to former Lafayette President Arthur J. Rothkopf.

“At a time when there’s all this pressure to reduce costs, the idea that schools – and particularly very good schools, exceptional schools – would be considering a program in which they’d be spending potentially millions more on sports or athletics -- or as I would say, entertainment -- and not academics, would seem to me to be a very bad idea,” Rothkopf said. “It’s a little bit of a moral issue.”

Rothkopf estimated that if the institutions opt over time to offer the maximum aid allowed under the new rule, “it will cost schools likely in the seven figures or more.”

Beginning with the class entering in fall 2013, the rule allows for each institution to offer up to 15 athletic scholarships and a total of 60 financial aid equivalencies per year. Whatever football scholarships the colleges add will have to be matched under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which mandates equitable competitive and financial aid opportunities for female athletes.

In a call with reporters Monday, Holy Cross Athletic Director Richard M. Regan Jr. said the cost for each institution will depend on two factors: how much additional aid will be necessary under Title IX, and how high the participation rates are.

“I don’t think anybody knows what the actual cost is going to be, necessarily,” said Regan, who is also chair of the Patriot League Committee on Athletic Administration. “There’s a number of moving parts on this.”

Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss, who also chairs the Patriot League Council of Presidents, said the college will offer merit aid in football, but that doing so will require “no additional allocation of resources” from its general budget.

While he said on the press call that the decision will help the league remain strong while keeping academics as the “foremost” priority, Weiss spoke out against football merit aid the last time the conference considered it, in 2010.

Back then, after the council voted to table the issue, Weiss told the student newspaper that the initiative was not “in the best interest” of the league, and wasn’t necessary for the group to accomplish its goals. “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,” he said at the time.

Asked on the press call what changed his mind, Weiss said the most important thing for Lafayette is to be able to participate in the league, whose high academic standards make it the right place for the college.

“We will offer merit aid in football because we believe that it’s necessary in order to continue to be competitive in the league,” Weiss said. (He declined a separate interview request.)

Many officials pointed to the decision’s potential stabilizing effect. With only seven of the 10 colleges sponsoring football in the Patriot League (American doesn’t play football at all, while the naval and military academies play as independents, with no conference affiliation), they hope awarding merit aid will help retain the current members while enticing future prospects.

Femovich said that the conference will discuss the addition of one or two colleges on both the football and all-sports side over the next year or so, but that those programs must fit the Patriot League profile.

“It’s something we’ve talked about for some time now…. For scheduling reasons and just other general stability reasons, it could be attractive to add one or more schools,” she said. “By no means do we expect to rush right out and add three or four new members.”

How this shift will affect the conference’s competitive relationship with the Ivy League is unclear. Robin Harris, executive director of the Ivy League, said the “natural tendency” for the colleges to want to play each other will remain -- they’re still the same institutions, after all. But whether they will compete as often remains to be seen. The Ivies, she said, don’t plan to offer merit aid any time soon.

“That just is not even on our table,” Harris said. “I just don’t see that changing. The Ivy League has some fundamental principles that have been long in existence, and they’re based on the fact that student-athletes should be treated as close as possible to the rest of the student body. And our schools provide need-based financial aid, and we don’t offer merit aid. And athletic scholarships are a form of merit aid.”

Patriot League presidents dismissed the notion that offering athletic scholarships diminishes the conference’s academic mindset or will result in lowered admissions standards, another concern of athletic aid opponents.

Colgate University President Jeffrey Herbst noted that the graduation rates of Patriot League member institutions are “at the very top,” indicating that the emphasis on academics has continued even as colleges have begun awarding merit aid for other sports.

“That record will continue,” Herbst said. Colgate itself has both improved its academic profile and reduced roster sizes and sports spending since it began offering athletic aid, he said. “Our experience with scholarships over all in sports has been positive, and achieved goals which we set out for when Colgate was initially debating offering merit-based athletic scholarships.”

Lack of a rule explicitly permitting football athletic scholarships didn’t stop Fordham from handing out merit aid beginning in 2009, but it did result in the league ruling the university ineligible for automatic bids in Football Championship Subdivision postseason play. (Fordham is still eligible for at-large championship bids but it hasn’t performed well enough to qualify at any level.)

This spring, the league will decide when Fordham will again become eligible for postseason play. Femovich said it’s likely that the remaining institutions will be given at least a couple of years to recruit with merit aid before Fordham gets the green light.

“It’s more or less to keep the playing field somewhat level,” she said. “In this business, an athletic scholarship gives you a resource and a tool to attract some talented individuals, if it’s used well.”

Fordham’s president, Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., said in a statement that the university is “very pleased” its competitors followed its lead. “We have found at Fordham that this approach has allowed our staff and coaches to recruit academically and athletically talented student athletes in a more efficient and effective manner,” he said.

The statement of Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia was somewhat more ambiguous.

“Since 2001, Georgetown has been committed to competing in the sport of football as an associate member of the Patriot League. This has allowed the university to compete with institutions that shared the same academic values and need-based financial aid philosophy.

“Georgetown will continue its membership in the Patriot League in the sport of football and explore all of its options, including our ability to compete as a need-based aid program. We remain committed to our goal of providing our student athletes with an unparalleled academic experience and an athletically competitive football program.”

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