Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lost In Translation

Was it something he said?

Or maybe how people read (into) it?

Such was the curious response to an August interview in the Georgetown Voice with University president Jack DeGioia (C'79, G'95). The annual interview gives the student press an opportunity to ask some topical questions to DeGioia on the upcoming school year. To those that follow such things, the responses (on issues ranging from the August earthquake to the upcoming capital campaign) follow the calm, measured cadence that DeGioia offers in situations like these. Entering his 10th year in the office of president, DeGioia remains a steady hand on the ship of state that is Georgetown University—a well regarded ship on the high seas of higher education, but a ship seen as slow to change its course.

The interview also included DeGioia's thoughts on football scholarships and his reaction to Fordham University's move towards schoalrship football. As to the response within the University community to the interview, well, there really wasn’t any. The article gathered no responses at the HoyaTalk message board. Ten responses followed the Voice article, most mired in a somewhat internecine argument about how Latinos are defined in faculty recruitment.

A comment posted today from someone named Lynn Blackwell, was anything but obscure. The comments are below:
"I can’t begin to express my outrage at President’s DeGioia’s comments regarding the Patriot League. In just about all other areas of the Division I athletics played at Georgetown, scholarships are awarded. It is understood, that the time and commitment required by athletes, exceeds those required by “regular” students, particularly at Division I level. It is with this understanding that schools provide scholarships as incentives and recognition of these students abilities and their commitment to continue provide their services. Georgetown is fine with rewarding students with scholarships in other areas, basketball, lacrosse, tennis, etc. However, football is supposed to be different? I totally disagree. As long as the academic standards are high, providing scholarships to football students will not lower the type of players that Georgetown attracts.

How is it a school with such prestigious alumnus and such a high tuition, cannot cover the costs associated with football? I suspect, that if Georgetown invested in football [one fourth] of what is invested in basketball, they would have an exceptional football program. I think President DeGioia’s response regarding Georgetown’s participation in the Patriot League is a cop-out and it does a disservice to the student athlete’s that participate on the football program and to the coaches who have to recruit each year.

There is a large pool of qualified candidates that will not attend Georgetown, because their families make just enough money that will disqualify them from financial aid needed to cover the cost of attendance. If these athletes have worked hard on and off of the field and they qualify academically, Georgetown should be willing to step up and do its part."
Well, that’s a strong response. What exactly did DeGioia say, again?

Here’s the excerpt of the interview Blackwell cites.
Voice: The issue of scholarships in the Patriot League remains unresolved with Fordham’s continued presence in the conference. Where do you stand on the issue of football scholarships, and how do you see this issue affecting the football team and other athletic teams?
DeGioia: We compete in football in the Patriot League, and we joined the Patriot League because it was consistent with the way in which we want to conduct the football program, which is a non-scholarship program. There are three tiers of football. We’re non scholarship, the next tier is the Football Championship Series, 63 scholarships from my recollection, and then I think it’s 82, and 82 is the Bowl Championship Series. We’re the least-cost program that you can offer, and this has been an ongoing issue within the Patriot League. To date, we have sustained the commitment to non-scholarship, and Fordham has gone scholarship, but they’re not eligible for the championship within the Patriot League because they’re playing by a different set of assumptions.
DeGioia (continued): The Patriot League has worked for us in terms of providing a very good context for our football program. It’s been very competitive and it’s required the highest level of competition that we have ever played since the 1950s, and I’m very proud of the way our young men have represented us on our football field. I am not supportive of moving to a scholarship program. I don’t believe that fits the ethos and the culture of Georgetown, and I believe the way that the Patriot League is conducted is exactly the right place for us to be, and I’m hopeful that it will continue to be the best place for us to be, but I’m not supportive of moving to a scholarship program and I’m not supportive that Georgetown would follow the move that Fordham did and go to 63 scholarships. It’s just very expensive and I don’t think it’s commensurate in who we are and in our aspirations for our athletic program."
The article link got picked up on a Division I-AA message board many Patriot league fans follow, and the responses were akin to a declaration of war. Some responses include the following:

  • "What a piece of **** statement from an enlightened individual. So..what about all the rest of the ethos of scholarships with every other sport you sponsor?"
  • "He has no clue about the football program except they are taking more money away from the well funded basketball team."
  • "I have been a strong supporter of Georgetown's participation in Patriot League football, but this statement by Dr. DeGioia really has to raise some eyebrows. Somebody had better clue him in that, regardless of the funding formula, the Patriot League fully expects all of its members to compete on a national level in FCS."
  • "He said that football scholarships - in and of themselves - don't fit in with the character and culture of Georgetown. It's as if he believes that any kid on scholarship for athletics is somehow against the culture of the institution. Either he feels that all scholarshipped kids don't fit in with the "ethos" of Georgetown - or that it's just specific to football players. Either way, it's an awful thing to be saying about the very students that attend your school. At the bare minimum it is incredibly hypocritical."
There’s a subplot to this ire, and it’s the Patriot League’s presidential punt last December on the issue of football scholarships. Lafayette president Daniel Weiss took a shot across the bow when he told the Lafayette student newspaper in advance of the vote he was not in favor of adding scholarships, and Weiss was held out to ridicule when the decision was tabled.

Proponents of scholarships in the league vary wildly in their outlook on its effects—some see it as elevating the league to better competing in the  Division I playoffs. Others see it as a means to fend off the Ivy League’s growing advantages in need-based recruiting, while still others see the Patriot League going the way of the buggy whip and the landline telephone if it does not adopt a model as Fordham is already doing. Good people can agree to disagree on such matters, and that includes the PL presidents.

There also was some fan indigestion raised over DeGioia’s comment in the transcript that “there are three tiers of football” and "the next tier is the Football Championship Series”. “The real problem here is Dr. DeGioia's supposition that the Patriot League competes at a level below that of the Football Championship Subdivision,” wrote one fan. “That is wholly unacceptable.”

Except he didn’t say that.

(Note: My initial response, portions of which were previously posted on that message board, is included within the overall comments below.)

First, I don't see anything particularly remarkable in this interview, as it follows a long-held institutional belief that Georgetown is better suited as a program recruited and funded along the lines of the Ivy League than the Colonial Athletic Association (Delaware, James Madison, Richmond, etc.). DeGioia didn't say he wants out of the Patriot League or Division I-AA, only that the Fordham approach doesn't appeal to him.”

What is the “Fordham approach”? Well, for the uninitiated that haven’t read this blog for the last three years, Fordham is moving towards a 63-scholarship program that will increase its football budget to $5 million a year, or about 25% of its athletics budget. (By contrast, Georgetown spends about $1.4 million of its $29 million athletic program on football, or about five percent).  It will allow Fordham to offer full rides (grants) to football players regardless of family income, while Georgetown may offer a lot or a little, depending on family income, and in varying forms of loan, grant, or work study. Fordham is leveraging this heightened investment to play one to two major college opponents a season (it lost to Connecticut in the opener, 35-3) and become a national I-AA playoff contender. Colgate would like to do this, too.

Lehigh, probably. Holy Cross and Bucknell, a little less so. Lafayette, as before, no. Thus, the aforementioned December "punt".

Do the absence of athletic scholarships hold the Patriot League back? Yes, but no less so than its long-held ban on 85% of all football recruits nationally who do not meet its self-imposed minimums on SAT and GPA, the Ivy-League approved “Academic Index”. (Some PL fans are quick to do battle on scholarships, but are otherwise loyal to the arbitrary nature of the Ivy Index, but that’s another topic.)

So for those unaware with Georgetown football, the obvious retort follows: “if you’re against scholarships, why do you have them in basketball?” But Georgetown doesn't have an philosophy against athletic scholarships. Some sports at GU are fully funded, some sit in the middle with need-based aid, and some get next to nothing at all, because it's never been able to fully fund all its sports (and unless you're Notre Dame, Stanford, or Texas, chances are your school can't, either). Football has long been a middle tier sport at Georgetown sitting between the fully funded programs (basketball, track, lacrosse, and soon, soccer) and those with even less (tennis, swimming, baseball, softball).

And without the ability to recoup scholarship expenses (as basketball can), where is the return on a 63-grant football program? You could charge $100 a ticket at the MSF for every home game, students included, and that still wouldn't fund 25 men's scholarships a year. Is there huge untapped demand for alumni to see Georgetown aspire to play Delaware or James Madison, assuming there is a place built to fit them?

On one level, it really is a money issue DeGioia is driving at. Georgetown doesn't view an extra $3-6 million a year (incorporating Title IX) in grant-based scholarships a good return for its investment, and it doesn't stand to make much of it back playing in the mess that is the MSF. The PL presidents also see much of the same paradox--they see Fordham drawing the same crowds as Bucknell and spending twice as much to do so, asking "what's in it for us, again?"

Jack DeGioia is not an casual observer here. He is the only PL president that actually played the game, and at Georgetown, no less. He is a past president of the Big East Conference, was invited to Mark Emmert's NCAA summit last month, and knows the PL's balance sheets far better than any of us do.

I neither claim nor pretend to have the view “behind the curtain” that DeGioia does, but some public data illustrates his institutional concern. U.S. Department of  Education data allows readers to contrast schools by the amount of athletic-based aid it awards versus the number of participants in their sports. Georgetown University awarded $3.071 million in athletic aid to male participants in 2009-10 (I’m using the male half of the equation for consistency purposes across schools, below).

$3.071 million, sounds like a large number, but is it?

There are over 400 men on 14 Georgetown teams from baseball to sailing, and at a cost of $58,500 a year (tuition, room, board, books and fees), that amount “buys” 52.5 funded scholarship equivalencies (FSE’s), a term I use to describe the composite athletic aid available for a school to award.

What are the comparable male FSE’s for other Patriot League schools?
Colgate: 102.3 students
Fordham: 96.8
Lehigh: 89.6
Lafayette: 82.4
Holy Cross: 69.7
Bucknell: 67.3
Georgetown: 52.5
Yes, that's right: Georgetown spends less on athletic aid than not only Big East schools, but Patriot League schools.

But put another way, Colgate has enough athletics aid in its budget for 102 male students to receive some form of athletics grant…if the PL allowed it, of course. Currently, only men’s basketball and men’s soccer are scholarship-available, leaving the rest for various aid buyouts, but if Colgate wanted to convert some number up to 63 from its FSE list for football, there seems to be room to do it.

Allocating 52.5 scholarships for Georgetown wouldn’t even cover the football team, but remember, that number covers all 14 sports, not one. When you subtract out the commitments for Big East basketball scholarships (13), track (12.6), lacrosse (12.6), and soccer (maybe 6.3 out of the 9.9 allowed), that’s 44.5 scholarships. Some quick math leaves somewhere about eight FSE’s for ten remaining sports, including football. In business, that’s called a tight margin.

These may not be the hard and fast numbers at play, and I don’t suggest it is. But DeGioia does know the numbers, and he knows 63 doesn’t work at Georgetown. The Big East requirements for scholarship minimums in key sports don’t give Georgetown the wiggle room to transfer athletic aid into football in ways Fordham can--and Colgate could.  To suggest Georgetown could is one thing. To suggest it would is quite another.

That having been said, DeGioia s also incredibly supportive of the Georgetown football program when others have been less so, and attends as many games as he can (although at the MSF, there's even not a box seat for him to sit at). But asking the Board of Directors to get behind a multi-million scholarship initiative that his head coach hasn't pushed for, that his athletic director hasn't pushed for, and frankly, the fan base hasn't pushed for is unrealistic. For a University that lost hundreds of millions of dollars before DeGioia took over, advancing a plan with little institutional support and with almost minimal ROI isn't good business sense for any CEO.

Fans at other schools didn’t hear that, of course. They read a statement from the interview as a roadblock to progress, to I-A games, to the kind of visibility Fordham aspires to.

Where DeGioia says “The Patriot League has worked for us in terms of providing a very good context for our football program,” they see “We’re non scholarship, the next tier is the Football Championship Series.” Yes, the Patriot League is part of the Championship Series and yes, there is a long standing funding gap at Georgetown between the two. The two statements are not mutually exclusive.

Of course, if someone wanted to make seven-figure gifts in that direction, he's not going to turn it down, either. Alumni have raised funds to fund women's soccer grants and a baseball grant here and there, and that's fine by him. Could Georgetown convert a few need based awards to scholarships? Maybe. But Georgetown itself doesn't want to be caught on the hook for 63 every year when the donors grow weary and the school’s balance sheet doesn't have that kind of leverage. If Georgetown fans like Lynn Blackwell want DeGioia to see the benefit in football scholarships and make it financially palatable to do so (as lacrosse did to their credit), well, why not work through the Gridiron Club and make it a priority? DeGioia has never drawn a Hunter Guthrie-like line in the sand and said “No More Scholarships For Us!” Instead, the approach has been that in an era where the university’s stated #1 priority is need-based aid, any drive towards scholarships that go beyond need would have to come from the constituents themselves and not at the expense of the University’s stated priorities. Absent some major donors to change the equation, why would any college president commit to doing otherwise?

For those that like to use such a debate to question Georgetown's interest in football, this quote from DeGioia bears repeating: "I believe the way that the Patriot League as conducted is exactly the right place for us to be, and I’m hopeful that it will continue to be the best place for us to be."

Short of the PL mandating 63 scholarships, that sounds like an affirmation to me.

It’s all in how you read it.