The NCAA men’s basketball tournament tipped off last week, and one of the questions that was on everyone’s mind prior to the start was: Should I root for – or against – Harvard?
On one hand, Harvard was an underdog. It may have dominated the Ivy League, losing only once (to Yale), but it enters the tournament seeded 12th in its region, and played its first game against a 5th seed, Cincinnati (the result of the game was not known by press time).
On the other hand, Harvard is Harvard.
We’ll return to our dilemma in a moment. First, a little background. This is Harvard’s fourth consecutive Ivy League championship, and its third consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. It’s premature to call Harvard a college hoops juggernaut – it has won just one game in those two previous March Madness appearances – but it’s getting there.
Harvard may not have the benefit of athletic scholarships, which are prohibited in the Ivy League, but it does have gobs of money that can be used to underwrite need-based financial aid packages for athletes from unprivileged and middle-income backgrounds.
It has been landing top recruits for several years now, if necessary steering them toward a post-graduate year of prep school – Northfield Mount Hermon is the school of choice – for a little transcript-burnishing.
For colleges such as Stephen F. Austin or Mercer or North Dakota State, a few of this year’s potential Cinderellas, you can understand the appeal of having a top-flight basketball program. You might even be able to quantify it. Butler did, calculating (somehow) that its improbable run to the 2010 Final Four translated into $639,273,881.82 in publicity for the university. And that didn’t include increases in merchandise sales or donations, or the surge in applications.
Harvard doesn’t need the publicity, and it has never had any trouble selling branded merchandise. The school received a record 35,023 applications last year for 2,029 spots; does it really want more? As for donations, Harvard already has an endowment of $30 billion, the largest in the country.