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Patriot League adopts football scholarship model

Change broadens educational access for prospects

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

The Patriot League’s decision last month to allow its institutions to begin awarding athletics aid in football will help more student-athletes who are talented on the field and in the classroom get an education at the highly regarded academic institutions in the conference.

Dave Roach, athletics director at Colgate, said the change won’t make any of the Patriot League schools treat their student-athletes any differently, but it will improve student-athlete well-being by allowing schools to give more athletics aid to student-athletes in all sports. The league began offering aid in all its other sponsored sports in 2000-01, after beginning with basketball in 1998-99.

“I feel like more middle class kids will be able to come to our institutions,” Roach said. “(In the past), the kids who had a lot of need could get a lot of aid. And the kid who was wealthy, we had a chance of getting. The kid in the middle, if we can offer him 100 percent now and they have a chance to get a Colgate education, we have a chance of getting that kid now, too.”

Executive Director Carolyn Schlie Femovich believes the change won’t impact the Patriot League’s reputation as a top-flight academic conference.

“One of our unwavering commitments is that our student-athletes must be academically representative of all the other students on that campus,” Femovich said. “Whatever the admissions are for students generally, those same standards apply to our institutions. Those standards are generally quite high. This (decision) just broadens the pool. Now our coaches can access a broader pool of highly talented students by being able to offer aid whether or not there is need. We think it positions us to have access to and compete for that top scholar-athlete.”

The decision also solidifies the conference, which could have lost a football-playing member in 2012-13. Fordham began offering athletics aid in football in 2010, forfeiting its right to the league championship. The 2012 season would have been the last the Rams played in the Patriot League if the decision to go to conference-wide football athletics aid was not made.

Femovich said the presidents and athletics directors in the league both supported the move as a way to “stabilize and strengthen” current membership and begin discussions about the potential to increase membership.

“As you assess the landscape around you, your conversations turn to – ‘Would there be an advantage to being a little bit larger?’ Part of the strategy is to position us to expand when the right opportunity arises,” she said. “We recognize that we live and work in a competitive marketplace. This is just one more tool, if used appropriately and strategically, to be more competitive (with other conferences) and to help our student-athletes succeed.”

The Patriot League plan will allow schools to begin offering 15 athletics scholarships in football beginning with the 2013 season, with the potential to add 15 per year up to the predetermined limit of 60. The Football Championship Subdivision allows 63 total scholarships, though legislation eliminating three scholarships in football is pending before the Presidential Advisory Group, which has the final say on all FCS issues.

Many schools will be able to accomplish the shift without allocating new dollars. Roach said Colgate will simply move its need-based aid to merit-based aid in football. Lehigh President Alice Gast said that her school won’t allocate new dollars to the effort, either.

“We are committed to making this transaction within our current budget and to working very closely with our football team to make sure they are able to optimize their recruiting in the same way the other sports have been able to,” Gast said. “I feel confident that we will be able to make a very smooth transition that holds our values and maintains our current financial level.” 

Femovich said the move might require some schools to add additional scholarships for female student-athletes in order to remain compliant with federal gender-equity law. Colgate had always counted its need-based aid in its Title IX calculations, so additional athletics scholarships for women won’t be necessary at his institution.

The decision will also assist schools in scheduling. Once they offer aid, games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents will count toward bowl eligibility for those opponents, making it easier for Patriot League institutions to schedule FBS schools in football.

For Femovich, the decision was more about putting the decision to help as many student-athletes as possible into the hands of the institutions.

“When it comes down to it, this decision really is about allowing institutions the latitude and the flexibility to use their financial aid resources in the most strategic way to meet their institutional goals, in keeping with Patriot League goals,” Femovich said. “At our institutions, student-athlete well-being is always part and parcel of what we do. There is a high focus on the development of the individual, and in athletics we think student-athlete well-being encompasses personal development, academic successes and the opportunity to compete and be competitive at the Division I level.”