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In the grand and sometimes-sordid scheme of collegiate athletics, the sins of the Brown Bears are far from mortal. But unfortunately for them, much like the folks over at Hebrew National, the teams from Providence need to answer to a higher authority.

In light of a series of admitted recruiting violations, the Council of Ivy Group Presidents handed down a ruling last week that levied upon Brown some of the stiffest penalties ever dished out by the Ancient Eight. The 2000 football Bears were told that they would not have a chance to vie for a second consecutive title, and the Ivy wisemen and wisewoman imposed a bevy of other less-stringent sanctions on three other Brown teams.

It didn't matter that Brown had already placed self-imposed sanctions on those very same teams, or that the Ivy League office had already expressed its satisfaction with the Bears' self-flagellation, or even that the NCAA had deemed Brown's infractions minor.

Nothing mattered to the presidents except the fact that Brown had taken a chunk out of what has been the league's sacred cow for all of its 44 years -- the prohibition of athletic scholarships.

There's no doubt that Brown broke the rules. Coaches and alumni alike made improper offers to recruits, pointing them toward a source of money that was reserved for Brown athletes but was not part of the university's financial aid reserves.

At its heart, the presidents' ruling is eminently just. It punishes Brown and David Zucconi, the director of the Brown Sports Foundation, for blatant rules violations. Still, there's something tragic in Brown's fate.

Nobody got a free Mercedes. Nobody's mother found a cushy desk job. Brown's sins are worthy of punishment, but that doesn't mean they aren't understandable.

First off, one has to realize that what we had here was a failure to communicate.

The coaches and administrators in Providence failed to keep proper tabs on the activities of their boosters and alumni. It is every college's job to make sure that no one who represents the school-- and that most certainly includes 'friends of the program' -- makes contact deemed improper by the NCAA or by league regulations.

"It's everybody's job to make sure that the alumni know what they can and can't do," Penn football coach Al Bagnoli said. "It's the coaches' job; it's your compliance people's; it's everybody's. Because there are always so many changes, it's important to keep everyone informed of the rules."

The reason for this kind of vigilance is two-fold. First, it curbs those boosters who might be interested in serious infractions such as paying players. Second, it makes sure that those good-hearted alums who have no intention of doing anything improper don't slip up and cause a school to face the lawman's wrath.

Assuming that Brown had no insidious plan to skirt the rules, lack of communication seems to be its fatal flaw. So long as a school keeps its alumni aware of precisely what they can and can't do, it looks to be in the clear.

Even though Brown lost its ultra-talented quarterback James Perry to graduation last year, the Bears still had a solid chance to contend for the Ivy League crown in 2000. Now, thanks to the presidents' punishment, they have been denied the chance to try for the third title in Brown history.

Brown's violations pale in comparison to much that goes on in collegiate sports. At a time when less than half of Division I men's basketball players wind up graduating, it's comforting to see the Ivy League enforcing its rules so firmly.

Nevertheless, Brown's fate points to a problem that plagues the Ivies more than most.

Even though every Ivy League school has an endowment that allows for generous financial aid programs, the ever-rising cost of an Ivy education places a heavy burden on athletic recruiting.

The Ancient Eight has no problem attracting poor student-athletes -- who qualify for hefty aid packages -- or wealthy recruits whose families have the money to pay. The real difficulty is attracting middle-class families.

"I think that that's the No. 1 problem," Bagnoli said. "You have to remember that these kids who come from solid middle-class families are deciding between Penn and a full scholarship somewhere else. . . If we're not careful, we're going to see the number of those kids that we can get to come dwindle quickly and maybe disappear."

The Ivies are caught between a rock and a hard place. As tuition rises, it gets harder to recruit middle-class athletes with need-based aid. Yet the league strictly prohibits anything but aid that is awarded only to those most in need.

Brown broke the rules, but I can very much see why they were tempted to.

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