Exploring Options for Intercollegiate Athletics Reform

More than ever, the role of athletics in higher education is being discussed and debated across the nation.  Many questions regarding a university’s ability to balance academic quality and athletic success are being raised.  Perhaps more than anywhere else, these discussions are taking place at our university.  In addition, our university is often a focal point for these discussions at other academic institutions.  Our faculty in Exercise and Sport Science are at the forefront of researching solutions for these pressing issues and problems in intercollegiate athletics.  In addition, our graduate program in Sport Administration focuses on preparing it’s students for leadership positions in intercollegiate athletics where they can apply the latest scientific knowledge and make a positive impact.

This week’s EXSS impact blog post focuses on the recent work of Dr. Erianne Weight.  In this study, she investigates possible routes to reform intercollegiate athletics and address the questions and debates being raised about the role of intercollegiate athletics in higher education.

Why we performed this study?

Slide1Controversy has been a steady companion of college sport as the proper role of athletics within the academy amid media attention and commercial enticements has never been philosophically reconciled.   The organizational philosophy of housing intercollegiate athletics within the academy has largely been based upon the notion of athletics as a unique element of a holistic education with tremendous brand-building, relationship-forging and student-drawing power which has been significant in defining the university experience within the United States. This foundational philosophy has been utilized to justify the burgeoning college sport enterprise, but a growing body of reformers have condemned the industry for its excessive commercialism, unprincipled behavior and athlete exploitation.  This condemnation, coupled with the media attention surrounding “big time” intercollegiate athletics is seen by some as a significant detractor from the mission of higher education. This study investigated a possible route to reform through the perspectives of National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division I coaches.

The Proposed Reform Approach Investigated:

A philosophical reform approach was delineated by Myles Brand, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) president from 2002 to 2009.  A vocal proponent of the educational value of intercollegiate athletic participation, he condemned the academy for its athletics-as-an-auxiliary mindset which he felt was at the root of many of the conceptual problems which have led to intense competitive pressure related to winning and the arms race of intercollegiate athletic expenditures.  To overcome this bias, Brand suggested an integrated view of intercollegiate athletics wherein athletics would be treated as an academic unit similar to the performing arts such as music, dance, or theatre, which have very similar structures. Commercialization within this framework, he presented, is a healthy byproduct of a top-notch educational experience.  Just as a music department might host a nationally-televised concert which could financially benefit the department and university, exposure and revenue through a successful athletic department event is a welcome supplement toward the subsidization of athletic scholarships and departmental infrastructure.

What did you do and what did you find in this study?

We measured coach perceptions of this reform philosophy through a survey sent to the entire population of NCAA Division I coaches with available email addresses.  A response rate of 19% was attained providing a sample of (n =661) coaches with representative distribution between Division I sub-classifications and sports.

Quantitatively, coach stakeholders were divided in support of an integrated organizational structure.  However, an undercurrent of passionate qualitative narratives pointed toward a conclusion that many of the concerns with integration seem to be rooted in negative perceptions about the current organizational structure within the academy and the associated constriction and bureaucracy that may arise if athletics and academics were more formally aligned in purpose and structure.  The findings also demonstrated a clear current divide between athletics and academics.  An “us” vs. “them” mentality and vocabulary was evident in virtually all narrative responses demonstrated by the coaches who expressed a desire for an integrated structure primarily to gain greater benefits of job security, compensation, and work-family balance perceived to exist on the other side of campus.  These findings highlight an area of need within the literature to more concretely define what an integrated structure might logistically entail – what reward and reporting structures would exist, and how the coach-faculty role might differ from current coach or faculty positions.

Coaches viewed themselves as educators and expressed a desire to be viewed as educators and appreciated for the tremendous role that they play in shaping the educational experience of their athletes, yet many coaches did not feel supported in this role by the public or by their direct administrators. Tremendous hope and enthusiasm was expressed by a subset of coaches within the sample who recognized the potential benefits of an integrated organizational philosophy and structure of athletics within the academy.  These narratives reflected optimism in this pathway toward a reconciliation of the dissonance that has existed and ailed the industry since its inception.

How do these findings impact the public?

As a segment within the academe that is largely publicly subsidized and highly scrutinized, this data provides depth to the limited literature related to the “integrated view” of intercollegiate athletics as a possible reform avenue.  The study provides perspective and support for the legitimacy of Brand’s reform philosophy and offers a launching point for additional research to be conducted examining its feasibility. Practitioner benefits include providing a baseline for administrative and governmental decision making related to the organizational structure and allocation of resources in intercollegiate athletics during this particularly difficult fiscal time in higher education administration.

Slide1EXSS Impact

These findings provide great insight and impact on the current discussions regarding the relationship between higher education and intercollegiate athletics.  In addition, this study is a great example of the diversity of research being conducted within EXSS.   The past three weeks we have highlighted faculty research in the areas of Cancer and Exercise, ACL Injury Prevention, and now Intercollegiate Athletics Reform.  While our department has a diverse array of individual research agendas, in the end we are all aligned around our common goal to positive impact the public and improve quality of life.  I look forward to sharing more about our faculty’s work in future posts, as these are just a few of the diverse and impactful research agendas within our department.