Leaders … or Cheer – Leaders

(This column was originally posted at the Sport+Fitness Network blog June 16, 2014)

Do the faculty at your institution act as leaders regarding athletics … or as cheerleaders?

Since the summer of 1852, when crews from Harvard and Yale rowed against one another on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee in the first intercollegiate athletic competition, the place of sports on campus has been a topic of debate. By the early 1900s, issues including player eligibility, safety, finances, time, attention, and academic integrity created both a call for reform of college sports and a struggle for control of those reforms.

In his book Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, Dr. Ronald A. Smith explains that five groups vied for control of college sports (and still maintain influence): students, faculty, college presidents, governing boards and agencies, and alumni. Add modern media entities to the mix and that roster has not changed much.

Although faculty joined the fray for a while, for more than a century the prevailing wisdom regarding college athletic reform has focused on the role of the college president. Smith cites various sources that all come to the same conclusion … significant reform must be driven from the presidents. Smith then rightfully points out that the prevailing wisdom is wrong.

Presidents have been mostly inept in enacting significant reform – especially reforms associated with academic integrity – and they’ve been at it since around 1905. Granted, it is a difficult challenge as presidents must answer to demanding constituencies who do not always put academic interests ahead of the numbers on a scoreboard. But far too many presidents fall into the cheerleader role in handling athletics … pouring money into facilities and coaching hires; measuring program success by wins and losses; allowing marginal students into the institution due to athletic prowess. It’s a much easier and more popular path to be a cheerleader than a leader.

So, if presidents have proven mostly inept at enacting reform, and the other invested groups are typically more interested in reforms focused on the sport instead of academics (competitive contests, player safety, money, etc.), what are faculty to do?

Here are five tips I would recommend to faculty who want to act as leaders with regard to college athletics:

Get Engaged with Athletics … Faculty stay plenty busy handling the trifecta of professorial duties – teaching, service, and scholarship. Still, learning about the school’s athletic programs would be useful to even the most accomplished academicians. Find out what teams the institution fields and the athletic conference to which the school belongs; know the Athletic Director and the head coaches (if not the assistant coaches when feasible); realize when contests and championships are being contested. All of this information is readily available on the websites of the most modest athletic program. Even if a professor has little interest in sports, staying engaged is demonstrating leadership.

Recognize the Significance of Athletics to the Students … As a professor, I may not like it but some students are at the university because of their sport. This holds true at all levels of competition. Going back to Ron Smith’s book, he notes that differences among the various levels of intercollegiate competition are of degree, not of kind. NCAA Division III and NAIA schools (typically smaller institutions) follow a very similar athletics model as the big-time giants like Alabama and Oklahoma. They have professional coaches, a significant conditioning regimen, and a demanding practice schedule. They recruit. They compete for championships. The list goes on. Even students not on athletic teams are much more likely to attend a football game than a campus play or concert. So, sports are significant to students. Accepting the reality is another act of faculty leadership.

: the Significance of Athletics to the Institution … We know that big-time college sports generate huge revenue. On May 30, 2014, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) announced revenue distribution of more than $309 million to the fourteen member schools. The Big 12 distributed $212 million to its ten members. The Big Ten is expected to divide over $320 million among fourteen institutions later this month. Revenue generation is not limited to the big schools. If you wonder why so many small colleges have added football teams in the past decade, simply calculate the math. A typical NAIA program may allot the equivalent 24 scholarships with a team enrollment goal of 100 players. Regardless of how the scholarship pool is divvied up, an equivalent of 76 students will be paying tuition. Ask any small college if an additional 76 students is significant. The answer is yes.

Hold Players Accountable … An easy test to determine whether a faculty member is a leader or a cheerleader is to assess whether they hold players to the same academic standards as every other student. We do not have to treat every student the same, but we should treat every student fairly. A baseball player should not get extra time to study for an exam because his team had a road game, a football player should not get to stroll into class ten minutes late because his touchdown was replayed on ESPN, an athlete should not be able to miss multiple class sessions without consequences because of “excused” absences for travel (which is a misnomer anyway). Expect good work from students, whether they are on an athletic team or not, and hold them accountable for academic performance. Doing so is the act of a leader.

Avoid Using Coach as a Crutch … If you are a faculty member, when is the last time the basketball coach called to ask you to help a post player with footwork on the block? Or, when has the football coach sent an email asking you to work with a safety on his backpedal and route recognition. How about the baseball coach calling to get you to work with the second baseman on a double-play pivot? My guess is none of those have ever happened. Yet, some faculty members are quick to contact a coach to help motivate a player to attend class or complete assignments more punctually. Yes, coaches have special relationships and influence with players, and yes most coaches would welcome such contact from a professor … but it is MY job as a faculty member to motivate students in the classroom, to get them to submit work on time, to interest them in our course content. A leader takes responsibility for what goes on with students; a cheerleader is quick to call the coach for help.

Academics should always take precedent on campus. Colleges and universities exist for that purpose after all. But, athletics are significant too – and the concerns associated with college sport are significant enough to warrant attention. Successfully addressing those concerns requires healthy communication between academics and athletics.

Higher education institutions benefit most when faculty act as leaders in the cause.

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