Ivies: Still Not Like Everyone Else

One of today’s Inside Higher Ed top stories is a commentary on the state of Ivy League athletics that attempts to forward a premise that it is getting “harder and harder to tell the Ivy League from the rest of big-time college sports.”

This article comes in the wake of much hand wringing by various college basketball pundits, decrying Penn’s decision to relieve coach Glen Miller of his duties before the end of the season.

While these superficial and seemingly uninformed attacks on the league may earn the plaudits of the masses, they begin to lose their merit when explored on a deeper basis.

The Inside Higher Ed article begins by referencing the Pete Thamel New York Times article that, among other things, accused Harvard of lowering its academic standards to afford new coach Tommy Amaker advantages in recruiting. As John Feinstein points out, however, Harvard got caught arrogantly trying to defend its standards rather than emphasizing that they had been well above the league average and that, while they would be adjusted downward, they were still expected to be the highest in the league. While Thamel goes on in the Times piece to explain the league’s Academic Index-based recruiting structure, that nuance gets lost in the simpler sound bite that Harvard was “bending its admissions standards.”

Before delving into the Miller situation the Inside Higher Ed piece also makes reference to the league’s postseason lacrosse tournament and claims that it is a “possible precursor to a postseason basketball tournament.” Feel free to focus on that one weekend a year rather than the Ivy League’s continued adherence to back-to-back weekend games in hockey and basketball to avoid interference with classes, its limits on out-of-region travel, and its unique policies that further restrict organized practice time beyond NCAA mandates. I guess the Ivies do look a lot like any other league, if one refuses to acknowledge any of the myriad ways in which it is different.

Miller’s termination seems to have fanned the flames of the Ivy to big-time athletics conspiracy theorists, almost more so than the stories about Harvard almost two years ago. The Inside Higher Ed piece offers the damning evidence from assistant professor of sport studies at Guilford College and former Harvard associate athletic director Robert Malekoff, who registered the following complaint:

“People in the Ivy League love to say, ‘Oh, we’re different,’ and it’s not all about winning. But when something like this happens, it’s fair to ask the question, Are they really different?”

The question may be fair, but the implication that the reasons were “all about winning” and that the answer should be a resounding “no” is not. Not to mention that, as the article fairly states, Malekoff gave Miller the coaching job at Connecticut College, so his views here aren’t exactly objective.

An examination of Penn basketball must be detached from its seven fellow Ivy competitors, the other teams that share the Penn name, and league athletics in general. If you fail to grasp that simple concept, you will fail to understand the underlying issues that led to Miller’s departure.

The Quakers play in a historic building that has hosted more NCAA Division I basketball games than any other. The team and building are inextricably linked to a city and its neighboring programs on a level that almost rivals Penn’s ties to the other Ivy League squads. The Quakers players, administration and fans value the Big 5 tradition and competitiveness in that series as much as they crave dominance in Ivy play. Thus, the standards to which the Penn basketball program is held are unavoidably different from almost any other Ivy team in any sport.

The facts remain that Miller failed to gain the support of the Quakers fan base, never received the embrace of the community and couldn’t write his own chapter into Big 5 folklore. To some extent, the deck was stacked against him from the start, as an outsider to the Philly tradition, but that is of little consequence at this point. And while more wins and fewer losses might have begun to turn the tide, his inability to captivate the imagination of the community as his predecessor Fran Dunphy had, as well as Dunphy’s continued presence in Philly college basketball, almost wrote his death warrant from the start.

The college basketball pundits have latched onto Penn’s current 0-7 record and Miller’s career losing record at the helm of the Quakers as a simple explanation for what they are dubbing a particularly pernicious offense. From there, they condemn the Ivy League to serve a life sentence in the murky morass that is big-time athletics. A simple verdict issued without consideration for possible counter-arguments and inconvenient facts and appealing to the masses’ bloodthirsty desire to debase everything esteemed in this society.

Is the Ivy League just like everyone else? Apparently if you really want it to be.

Michael James

Michael James wrote 98 posts

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