Harvard's Diabolical Plan to Become a Jock School

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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Those poor Harvard kids have finally caught a break. Last night the 14th-seeded men's basketball team beat No. 3 seed University of New Mexico in the biggest upset the NCAA tournament has seen in years. It was a huge victory for the athletic underclass.

Or was it?

We may still think of the Ivies as second-tier sports schools -- the perennial brainiac underdogs -- but we're really just clinging to mythology. They're now athletic powerhouses in their own right.

The explanation is economic: Several years ago, the Ivy League significantly altered its financial-aid structure. The Ivies didn't start offering athletic scholarships. That wouldn't have been consistent with their student-first images. Instead, they did something much more effective: They took hundreds of millions of dollars from their massive endowments and repurposed it toward need-based aid.

A Harvard (or Yale, or Princeton, etc.) education was suddenly a lot cheaper for the lower- or middle-income families. Student loans were essentially eliminated. Grants for middle-class families basically doubled. And families earning less than $60,000 would no longer be asked to contribute anything toward their child's Ivy League degree.

Needless to say, this made the Ivies a lot more attractive to top students who might otherwise have chosen a cheaper public university. But it also made the Ivies a lot more attractive to most top athletes. From a pure cost perspective, that athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan is no longer necessarily a better deal than that financial-aid package from Harvard. What's more, at Harvard, your aid package can't be revoked at the coach's whim if you underperform or get injured.

The Ivies are already building a monopoly on the nation's top students. Is it that far-fetched to imagine them building a similar monopoly on its top collegiate athletes?

Some 25 percent of Ivy League graduates will go on to work on Wall Street, earning untold millions. Many will donate at least a portion of their fortunes back to their alma maters -- further swelling their already bloated endowments, even as state schools suffer funding cuts and accumulate debt investing in their athletic departments. Some of that endowment money will, in turn, be used to upgrade athletic facilities and hire the country's best coaches, while also subsidizing irresistible financial-aid packages.

Three cheers for the underdog!

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