A History of Ivy League Principles

A History of Ivy League Principles

In an era when much attention is paid to college athletics and its relevance on a university campus, it is rewarding to see that the principles on which the Ivy League presidents formed the conference are still alive and thriving.  This group believed that athletes should be students first and representative of a school's overall student body—and that athletes should be treated like any other students, receiving nothing more nor less. While the name "Ivy League" brings to mind many different things today,  the term is actually athletic in its origin—referring to the conference founded by these like-minded rival schools.  

Sixty years after the Ivy League began formal play, its eight member institutions still adhere to this founding concept -- that intercollegiate competition be compatible with the colleges’ essential purposes. John Powers of the Harvard Class of 1970, who shares the history of the Ivy League below, explains the genesis of this special league, which continues to maintain an uncommon balance between athletics and academics.  

-- Bob Scalise, The John D. Nichols '53 Family Director of Athletics

By John Powers '70

     When the presidents of the eight colleges that would become the Ivy League outlined their principles seven decades ago their starting point was declaring what their programs would not be: semi-professional enterprises that entertained paying spectators but had little connection to undergraduate life. "The Ivy Group has a golden opportunity to hold the line and lead the way," Harvard athletic director Bill Bingham wrote in 1946.

     Although it took eight more years for the member institutions to formalize the fundamentals of what their programs actually would be, those principles haven't changed since league play began in 1956. Athletes still are representative of the student body. Financial aid remains need-based with no athletic scholarships and no requirement to play a sport. And academic officials control athletics, with admissions offices determining the acceptances of recruited athletes.

     "Athletics exists in our types of institutions because it's part of the educational program for the students," says Harvard athletic director Bob Scalise. "The students are here to get an education and we try to teach people things through athletics."

     The foundation of the Ivy philosophy, that intercollegiate competition should be kept in harmony with the essential purposes of the member institutions, remains unaltered. When Harvard's coaches are recruiting prospective student-athletes they stress the lifelong benefits of attending a college where academics and athletics are in balance.

     "We talk about that this is not a four-year decision, this is a 40-year decision," says Tommy Amaker, The Thomas G. Stemberg ’71 Family Endowed Coach for Harvard Men’s Basketball, whose men's basketball teams have claimed five consecutive League titles. "This is a life-changing opportunity."

    At a time when the distinction between amateur and professional approaches increasingly has become blurred at the top level of intercollegiate competition, the Ivies have managed to hold the line on their core beliefs. While schools in the so-called Power Five conferences are paying millions of dollars in extra stipends to scholarship athletes, the League continues to cover the full cost of attendance through its financial aid packages, as it does for all undergraduates receiving assistance.

     While the League's top teams are more than competitive at the national level in nearly all sports their primary goal remains winning the Ivy title. "We measure our success primarily by our standing within the league," says Scalise, a former Brown lacrosse co-captain who coached the Harvard men's lacrosse and women's soccer varsities to four Ivy titles. "How well we do against the teams who do things in a very similar manner to the way we do them."

     What sets the Ivy colleges apart now, as at the beginning of their agreement, are the uncommon values that they hold in common. "The biggest thing that we stress is that academics and athletics are not mutually exclusive," says Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football, whose teams have won or shared nine Ivy titles. "You can reach your full potential here.”