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Why doesn’t the Ivy League Participate in the FCS Playoffs... and Should It?

It’s been a longstanding tradition that Ivy League football programs don’t play in the postseason. But is it time to do away with that old practice?

Princeton University vs Yake University Set Number: X163066 TK1

Over the last three seasons Dartmouth has made a consistent appearance in the final Top 25 polls of FCS football. They don’t often seem to make national headlines but make no mistake, they’ve been serious force and not just within the ranks of the Ivy League. Last fall the Big Green defeated a playoff team in Sacred Heart after toppling both Georgetown and Holy Cross back in 2018.

Excluding a canceled 2020 campaign, the league has been largely ruled by the boys from New Hampshire in recent years. Last fall they finished with a 9-1 overall record and earned the No. 20 spot in the final rankings. For all they’ve accomplished, though, Dartmouth has suffered the same fate that many successful Ivy teams of years past have: its season ends in mid-November.

Along with the SWAC and MEAC, the Ivy League has the distinction of being one of the few FCS conferences that does not send an automatic-qualifier to the postseason. Unlike those other two leagues, though, there is no game equivalent of the Celebration Bowl to denote any sort of title or championship. The season ends with little to no pomp. Last year, when Dartmouth beat Brown in the finale and secured their place atop the league standings, they took home the league championship and nothing more. Why?

It’s been this way for a long, long time... even before the Ivies joined the FCS. In 1945, university presidents from the eight schools signed into agreement what is known as the Ivy Group Agreement; an edict which prohibits the schools from handing out any sort of athletic scholarships. While seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that proclamation set into motion the wheels that still move the Ivy League to this day; the idea that academics is paramount to all else. This is essentially the reason the league presidents continue to denounce the idea of postseason football.

Penn Quakers Vs. Harvard Crimson at Harvard Stadium Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Argument For Postseason Play

It would be easy to look at it and say simply that a team like the 2018 Princeton Tigers who went undefeated deserve a shot at a national championship, but it goes deeper than that. The league has no issue sending its other sports to the postseason. Just this spring Yale won the men’s Ivy League tournament in basketball and represented the school at the NCAA tournament. In 2019 Harvard and Cornell each sent their men’s hockey teams to participate in the NCAA’s “Frozen Four” tournament. The claim that play beyond the regular season would tarnish the academic standards of the league seems to fall flat when looking at the successes of other athletic programs at the schools.

It’s also not as if the current FCS playoff format wouldn’t allow for such a change. The 24-team system allows for 11 auto-bids (the winners of each conference) and 13 at-large. It would be easy enough to adjust those numbers without a drastic hit to the number of at-large teams eligible, especially if the field expands in the near future like some expect it to.

Of course more games also means more money. Although the process for hosting a playoff game in the opening round of the FCS playoffs is somewhat complex with bidding and venue capabilities, the more a team is on television the better it is for their school. All FCS playoff games are currently aired on ESPN’s family of networks and that would be a significant jump in coverage that these programs usually get.

The Argument Against Postseason Play

The traditional meeting between Harvard and Yale in “The Game” has signified the end of the Ivy League season every fall for decades now. Some people enjoy witnessing that kind of finality to the campaign. The Bulldogs and the Crimson clashing has been the last game on the gridiron year in and year out for the league and it certainly wouldn’t be if a team reached postseason play.

The ten-game regular season also doesn’t seem to negatively impact the chances for the exceptional athletes to further their careers beyond college. Brown’s own EJ Perry is the most recent example as he partook in this year’s East-West Shrine Bowl (where he actually won the game’s Offensive MVP) and is expected to be drafted next month. Perry did not get the chance to play in the playoffs at all and yet he still had enough game experience to garner attention from the NFL.

Finally, more games mean a greater risk of injury to players; another concern university presidents have raised. There’s no doubt that the increased intensity that comes with playoff football can lead to injuries that certainly can impact a player’s future. Let’s say the aforementioned Perry does go down in a playoff game that he otherwise would not have played. What happens then? Does he still get that invite to the senior showcase game or the Combine? Likely not.

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Call it stuck up. Call it out-of-touch. Call it pretentious. The Ivy League, however, has proven that it’s more than content to exist in its own world when it comes to football. Tradition is something that is extremely important to these institutions and there’s been little reason to believe that’s changing in the near future. Whether its right or wrong, the Ivy League is one of the more peculiar conferences in all of collegiate sports because of its views on athletics, academics and how those branches of universities ought to come together. One thing is almost for certain, though: it will be a long time before we see one of these programs playing in the playoffs.