Why Can’t Ivy League Football Teams Compete in the FCS Playoffs?

Could Ivy teams successfully compete for an NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision national championship? Maybe not, but let's give them a chance.
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
Read Full Bio


Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on November 30, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Alex Pasquariello
Alex Pasquariello
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Alex Pasquariello is a senior news editor for BestColleges. Prior to joining BestColleges he led Metropolitan State University of Denver's digital journalism initiative. He holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University....
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: Williams Paul / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images
  • The Ivy League prohibits postseason play for its football teams.
  • In every other sport, Ivy athletes can compete for individual and team national titles.
  • Conflict with final exams and player safety are two major reasons for the prohibition.
  • Ivy coaches and players want the rule to change.

When the dust settled on the 2023 Ivy League football season, Harvard reigned as champion. So did Yale. And Dartmouth.

That's right — a three-way tie for the conference title. No tie-breakers, no additional games to determine a true winner.

They don't need one.

Each year, 11 conference winners within the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) earn an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Another 13 teams earn at-large bids. But those 24 teams never include any from the Ivy League, an FCS conference.

Since its founding, the Ivy League has prohibited postseason play for its football teams, though not for other sports. Coaches want this to change. Players want it to change.

Yet the league won't budge.

Ivy Agreement Bans Scholarships and Postseason Play

Today's college football fans might be surprised to learn that Ivy League teams used to dominate the sport long before the Ivy League existed. From the 1870s to the 1920s, Ivy schools were powerhouses, regularly winning national championships.

Two of the first three Heisman Trophy winners were from Yale. John Heisman himself played at the University of Pennsylvania.

As late as the 1940s, the Ivies were nationally relevant, competing with teams such as Notre Dame, Army, and the University of Michigan.

But everything changed in 1945 when the presidents of the eight Ivy schools signed the Ivy Group Agreement banning athletic scholarships for football. Students, it noted, should be "permitted to enjoy the game as participants in a form of recreational competition rather than as professional performers in public spectacles."

In 1954, the schools extended the policy to all sports and officially formed the Ivy League.

Curiously, the 1945 agreement also prohibited member schools from engaging in "post season games or any other contests designed to settle sectional or other championships." Yet by the same token, it excluded NCAA competitions from this prohibition, meaning that, by today's standards, Ivy football teams would be eligible to compete in the FCS playoffs, which are governed by the NCAA.

One interpretation is that "sectional or other championships" referred only to football bowl games, which are not under the NCAA's jurisdiction. But this still doesn't address today's FCS playoff format that doesn't include bowl games.

The Ivy League office did not respond to an inquiry attempting to clarify the matter.

In addition to the Ivy League, neither the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) nor the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) receives an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The champions from each conference instead meet in the Celebration Bowl, established in 2015. But other schools from those two conferences can receive at-large bids to the tournament.

Coaches, Players Want to Compete in Playoffs

What does remain clear is the Ivy League's staunch refusal to allow football teams to compete in postseason play. Why?

One reason is the supposed scheduling conflict with final exams.

"Regrettably, the postseason for football is during finals," Judith Rodin, then-president of Penn, told the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper, in 2003. "We'd prefer our students not engage in formal athletic competition during finals."

Yet another fall sport, volleyball, has its playoffs during final exams. Yale is participating in this year's tournament. In the spring, the NCAA lacrosse tournament, routinely involving Ivy teams, runs right through finals.

Player safety is another concern. Competing in more games naturally increases the chances of athletes getting injured. As it is, Ivy teams play only 10 games, while most of their FCS counterparts play 11 or 12. If Michigan makes the FBS — Football Bowl Subdivision — title game, it will play 15 games this season.

While the threat of injury is certainly a valid issue, especially in light of mounting evidence linking football to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, it's not the main reason the league remains steadfast in its prohibition of postseason play.

It's tradition.

"Other commissioners would love to see the Ivy League be part of the playoffs, but they understand it's a longstanding traditional decision," Robin Harris, then-executive director of the conference, told College Sports Journal in 2013.

Those other commissioners aren't alone. Ivy coaches have long wished for the opportunity to participate in the playoffs.

"I couldn't give you an intelligent reason, to be honest, when you have 33 sports or whatever and every other sport can go," Al Bagnoli, then-head coach at Penn, told SB Nation in 2018. "It doesn't pass the logic test."

Yale's Tony Reno agreed.

"You get into this profession to compete at the highest level and develop young men," he said, "and if you're fortunate enough to have a championship team, you'd love to test your mettle."

Aidan Sayin, Penn's current quarterback, shares that desire.

"We want to be able to play in that playoff, and every year there's at least one team from the Ivy League that's ranked high enough that would be in it," he told the Daily Pennsylvanian. "It would be a great opportunity to be able to go do that."

Would Ivy Teams Be Competitive?

Making the tournament is one thing. Having an actual shot at winning is quite another.

Would Ivy teams be competitive enough to make a long run in the playoffs? Probably not very often.

This season, no Ivy team finished the regular season ranked among the top 25 in the FCS Coaches Poll. Nor did any last year.

In 2021, though, Dartmouth ranked No. 20 in the final poll. And in 2018, Princeton achieved an undefeated season and finished as the No. 9 team in the FCS.

Still, it's unlikely even a top Ivy team would stand much of a chance against traditional FCS powerhouses such as North Dakota State, South Dakota State, and the University of Montana, though Bagnoli, Penn's coach in 2018, was more optimistic at the time.

"We think we'd be competitive," he said. "Would we win four in a row? Who knows? But I feel comfortable that some of my old Penn teams would have been competitive."

Perhaps the opportunity to compete for a national title would lure a different caliber of athlete to the Ivies, swaying the decision of players who might otherwise choose a Football Bowl Subdivision school such as Duke, Stanford, or Northwestern.

It's already happening in other Ivy sports thanks in part to changes in financial aid policies that began a dozen years ago, spawning what The New York Times termed a "renaissance" for Ivy League athletics. Increasingly generous aid packages, especially for middle-class students, paved the way for more top athletes to consider Ivies.

Today, Ivy teams and individual athletes routinely compete successfully for national titles in sports such as lacrosse, hockey, fencing, squash, track and field, crew, wrestling, and field hockey. Every Ivy athlete arrives on campus with the opportunity to win a national championship.

Except football players.

For them, the ultimate accomplishment is an Ivy League title. Could that eventually change? Could the league relent and allow postseason play? In this rapidly evolving college athletics environment, it seems anything is possible. But the Ivy League is nothing if not beholden to tradition, so don't wager on it happening anytime soon.