Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Uphill Crusade

Me and Matt Sodl at the Ivy Football Movie Premiere (THANKS: ERIC DRATH '93)

The excellent event last week at the Yale Club for the premiere of 8: Ivy League Football and America was sponsored by an organization called the Ivy Football Association.

The IFA is dedicated to preserving our favorite sport at all eight Ivy schools, and for the first time in the 20+ years I've been following Ivy football, I'm really worried about the future.

One only had to look around the packed movie-watching crowd Thursday night to see the problem: demographics. There were a lot of guys their in the 50's and older. A few recent grads who played varsity, and not a whole lot in between.

Non-football playing alums from the last 25 years or so are just not interested in Ivy football for the most part. And I don't think it's the quality of the games, (by the way, they're mostly better than they were in the 60's or 70's), and I don't think it's because the Ivies are in Division I-AA or FCS or whatever, (though that does not help).

Nope, I'm going to say the politically incorrect thing here and say this is a direct result of league-wide admission policies. Getting into an Ivy was never easy, but now it's about as hard as winning the lotto. The result is the kind of student who gets in to the Ivies is usually not much of a sports fan to begin with. This is in contrast to just about every year up until the late 70's, when prep school students with years of compulsory scholastic athletic experience dominated the Ivy campuses.

Now as a former victim of rigorous prep school education, I'm all for the fact that the Ivies draw their talent from a much wider swath of high schools than ever before. There are only so many snobs in rep ties a person can stand. BUT, the kinds of things they presumably still teach in prep schools have some good points. Kids learn school spirit, and the fact that if you want a sound mind you need a sound body too.

Plenty of public high schools instill those same principles, but it seems like the kind of student attracted to all the Ivies these days is intent on individuality above all else. And too often they're contemptible of all athletes no matter what. Of course, if you spend a huge chunk of your 9th to 12th grade years obsessing to maintain a 4.0 and test-prepping for the SAT, you're not exactly going to be a man or woman-about-town, if you get my drift. Thankfully, a lot of Ivy students buck this trend, but not enough. And I don't really blame them... developing a true personality is hard to do with admissions standards based on robot-like standardized testing.

The writing is on the wall people. The stands at most Ivy football games are frighteningly bare. I would say the entire generation of alumni from 1982-2008 have basically been lost. We won't see many of them at homecomings in the 10's, 20's and beyond.

Something has to be done NOW to get the students enrolled NOW out to these games and into the fold. I think beyond the excellent events like the 8 premiere and the annual dinner, the IFA needs to start thinking about sponsoring and organizing game day and weekend of game events on all the Ivy campuses that will attract current students and local alumni.

By the way, Columbia's recent struggles have hurt the league in general. Since New York City remains the city with the most Ivy alums, the fact that Columbia's home Ivy contests aren't enough of a draw even for the opposing team's fans is a problem. (When Columbia has had strong teams in the recent past, I can remember a lot of opposing fans jamming the stadium, especially the 1996 game vs. Princeton and the 1994 game against Cornell). A stronger Columbia would boost the league's football future more than any other school.

But that aside, let's all realize what we face here. I seriously think that we are just one bad publicity event away, (perhaps an Ivy football player being arrested or accused of some kind of Duke lacrosse team like incident -- unlikely to be sure, but possible in this day and age), from losing everything.

The ironic thing is that today's Ivy football player is more athletic, academically fit, and better integrated into campus life than almost ever before. We can't let bigots and other closed-minded individuals throw them under the bus.


At Wed Apr 30, 04:03:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger ibmuloca said...

I am a Virginia girl. I can remember when Frank Beamer saw students wearing caps from other schools. It became his personal mission to change that at VT and he did. Pride in school sports is even harder at an Ivy school but not impossible. A flame comes from a spark. It is important that the powers to be at the university make it a priority to build school spirit. A strong fan base is the greatest donor base.

At Wed Apr 30, 06:11:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger cathar said...

Excellent, thought-provoking column. To be fair, however, I think the present Murphy administration is trying very hard to promote ALL CU sports. (Just that billboard on the West Side Highway as you exit the Cross Bronx, heading south, I loved seeing that while driving to basketball games.)

But I would appreciate some better explication of what the IFA really does, Jake. Their annual dinner just strikes me as a somewhat over-stuffed event, the price and the black tie bit certainly always scare me off. Does it even have to be at the Waldorf in an era when Columbia does very nicely with its scaled down, somewhat casual letter awards ceremony? Where does the "gate" from an expensive event which last year, in the IFA's own words, attracted 1400 go? (How much is even left to fund programs after the Waldorf gets paid?)

Ivy schools might also profitably consider some "stunting" here in the media capital of the world. There was a not-so-long-ago time, for instance, when the CU band made a seasonal appearance or two on the David Letterman Show during football season.

The decline in football attendance, as well, may just be somewhat systemic, thus might be worth approaching as a united college and university front by FCS schools. I attended a Citadel game last year in Charleston which drew less than 5000 and I swear that are probably twice that many Citadel grads in the Charleston area alone, on a day when nearby USC was playing before 75,000. Fordham, despite a great team this past year, similarly struggled with attendance. As did Lafayette save for the Lehigh game. Even to look at the claimed attendance capacity for many Ivy opponents' home fields - places like Georgetown, Duquesne, Iona, URI, Holy Cross, Marist - indicates that they don't expect to draw big crowds so they don't have anyplace big enough to hold them in the first place.

It is, of course, chilling to contemplate a future without Ivy League football, remote as that possibility still strikes me. But it's also quite appropriate to contemplate such a future during a week when Columbia has just "commemorated" in its own weird way the "rebellion" of '68. I have no doubt that many who returned to campus to congratulate themselves on their vandalism so long ago and the claimed contemporaneity and validity of their politics probably never went so much as near Baker Field then and won't do so now. (Do they even donate to Alma Mater? That would be interesting to know compared to such generous souls as Kraft and Campbell.)

Back then, too, there was a genuine tension between (termed so by me, for a wildly successful dart game at Pamphratria's spring carnival in 67 which I named, but it caught on for a while) "jocks and pukes." That these times seem more laid back, that athletes no longer scuffle regularly with radicals or engender such clear politicized contempt (from students and faculty alike, I think, right away that's cause for hope. It is a more accepting and less openly divided Columbia campus.

Yet I also agree with you that the challenge remains, and that it's a big one.

At Thu May 01, 12:12:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Chick said...

Jake, How come you're bigger than Matt Sodl? Do you have any eligibility left?

At Thu May 01, 04:36:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

I'm only eligible in the SEC


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