Is the Ivy League model the future of NCAA Division I athletics?

The time is now to consider systemic changes in order to defend nonrevenue sports nationwide from the coming onslaught
By: | May 19, 2020
(Photo by Todd Greene on Unsplash)(Photo by Todd Greene on Unsplash)
Stephen Erber serves on the board of advisors for the American Sports Council. Over a 46-year career, he served in the athletics departments of Binghamton University State University of New York, Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, and Cornell University.    

Stephen Erber serves on the board of advisors for the American Sports Council. Over a 46-year career, he served in the athletics departments of Binghamton University, Muhlenberg College and Cornell University.

Within NCAA Division I athletics today, the emphasis rests squarely on generating revenue via football and men’s basketball. For the majority of athletics departments, balancing the budget and Title IX compliance have become increasing challenges, and one frequent and unfortunate consequence is the elimination of nonrevenue sports teams.

The current coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. has only accelerated concerns over athletics budgets throughout our nation’s colleges. Shutting down the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament along with looming uncertainty over college football, to say nothing of state tax revenue shortfalls, will hit college sports very hard.

The time is now to consider systemic changes in order to defend nonrevenue sports nationwide from the coming onslaught.


Read: Updated: 108 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic


Considering the need-based scholarship model

Given the current climate, the major football conferences, represented by their commissioners, recently requested that the NCAA allow their schools to lower their mandatory minimum number of sponsored teams. This request was denied, but the intention, to facilitate dropping sports, was obvious.

Pressure has been building for years to control athletic costs, and now the bills are coming due. Colleges are facing crushing revenue shortfalls, exacerbated by the current pandemic, and nonrevenue sports are being threatened.

To avoid the elimination and likely extinction of nonrevenue sports programs across this country, it is imperative that appropriate decision-makers seriously consider moving to the need-based scholarship model the Ivy League has practiced successfully for years.

In 1954, the presidents of the Ivy League schools eliminated athletics scholarships and went to a system of need-based financial aid for all athletes. In the ensuing 66 years, the Ivy League has remained competitive nationally in many sports. With some of the schools sponsoring more than 40 varsity programs, the Ivy League has the broadest-based programs of any conference in the nation, and its student-athletes graduate to become leaders throughout society.

One of the largest expenses in many athletics budgets is the cost of scholarships. Eliminating the cost of athletics scholarships for nonrevenue sports would have the added benefit of reaffirming the student-athlete designation, which is all but lost at some of the top NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision schools.


Read: Student-athletes: Sidelined by the pandemic, but not isolated


Balancing athletics budgets

Division I college athletics today bears little resemblance to the extracurricular activity that it once was. Colleges now unashamedly distinguish the sports as revenue (football and basketball) and nonrevenue (all the others).

In too many cases, the “student” participants have moved further away from the intended educational purpose of college athletics. For example, the “one-and-done” basketball athlete, at first an anomaly, is now approaching the norm. This particular type of student-athlete helps schools win NCAA championships while they earn just six academic credits before they are off to the NBA, usually leaving their education behind.

Many of the FBS schools (and probably all of the non-FBS schools) that do not generate revenue exceeding expenses balance their athletics budgets on the back of the state budget allocation to the school, or worse, on the back of the general student population in the form of mandated “athletics fees,” which sometimes exceed $1,000 per year. Every undergraduate student pays this fee. It’s not unlikely that a student, paying their own way for school, may have to work 80 hours at a part-time job just to pay the athletics fee.


Read: COVID-19 and the future of college sports


Preserving nonrevenue college sports

Pressure has been building for years to control athletic costs, and now the bills are coming due. Colleges are facing crushing revenue shortfalls, exacerbated by the current pandemic, and nonrevenue sports are being threatened.

This brings us back to the original question. If nonrevenue college sports are to survive, should the Ivy League model be the future of NCAA Division I athletics? The maintenance of broad-based athletics programs, the preservation of the nonrevenue (Olympic) sports, and the return of intercollegiate athletics to its intended educational mission are all at stake. The Ivy League was definitely on to something 66 years ago.


Stephen Erber serves on the board of advisors of the American Sports Council. Over a 46-year career, he served as the head coach of wrestling, associate director of athletics and professor of physical education at Binghamton University State University of New York; athletic director at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania; and associate director of athletics at Cornell University. 


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