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Making a Strategic Case for College Athletic Programs

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At many American colleges and universities, the athletic program is something like a machine that runs unto itself -- parochial and inward looking, defensive, and quite separate from the academic program. While athletics support a residential learning experience, the number of student athletes contributing to a balanced admissions class, the win/loss record, and the ability to keep alumni interested and involved typically define its value to the institution.

Is that really all there is? Is it possible to imagine that athletics could contribute more?

In an era of rising confusion over cost versus sticker price, the truth is that the athletic program seldom pays its share of the bill. While superficial arguments can be made about how an athletic program runs efficiently, the fact is that athletics drain the operating budget at all but a handful of large Division I programs. As the drivers of high tuition sticker prices become more clear, the real cost of athletics "all in" including the cost of recruitment, scholarships, coaching salaries and numbers of coaches and support staff employed, and the total number of sports played will likely come into closer examination.

There are, of course, offset arguments about what athletics bring to an institution. Some can be measured like the number of recruits who can help to build and balance an admissions class, especially at Division III institutions. Others like alumni participation, increased donor support, and heightened institutional visibility are far more difficult to pinpoint and quantify accurately.

Further, many colleges show little discipline about athletic programs allowing athletes to operate more like a privileged fraternity. Typically, a subset of trustees -- often but not always former athletes -- protect the athletic program from intrusive board action. Athletic directors maintain close relationships with them, suspected but not always disclosed to presidents and the rest of the senior staff. These relationships extend to local media, bloggers, and community advertisers and supporters who often react to change of almost any kind by deploying the equivalent of verbal tactical nuclear weapons to rally and support the troops.

Presidents and board chairs deal with athletics at their own risk. Penn State provides a compelling example. On the day the scandal broke, who was the most influential leader at PSU: Graham Spanier or Joe Paterno?

Yet most would agree that athletics enrich and define an institution. They can be part of a tactical arsenal to meet long-term institutional strategic goals. How, then, can presidents and boards support athletics while avoiding the worst excesses that weaken the case for them?

There are several issues to consider:

A college or university must have a clear sense of self. Does athletics play a role in contributing to the broader campus community? If so, say it clearly, with appropriate definition to permit outsiders, including applicants, to understand the "feel" of the institution.

What can athletics contribute to residential life? If athletics is part of the thousand teachable moments that exist outside the classroom, what kind of educational benefits should athletic recruits value? There is a good case developed by institutions like West Point, for example, that athletics promote leadership, work in collaborative settings, enhance collegiality, and develop time management skills. These characteristics also help define a liberal arts tradition upon which most institutions with athletics programs are founded.

Forge a link between the athletic and academic program. If there is a sense of common identity among participating institutions within the athletic conference, how can this build into broader discussions across the conference about shared academic programs, student life experiences, study abroad, career placement, admission recruiting, and administrative efficiencies of scale?

Strike a balance between the institution and athletics, most notably in the media. There's a simple test. If the college has a strong athletic program and the "news" section of the website is overwhelmingly about athletics, then the college must seek to rebalance its public image to put athletics into a less defining role by telling the story of its quality academic program better.

Define the conference. Presidents and board chairs should never make an argument that conferences "made me do it." Presidents must run athletic conferences and athletic directors should serve their presidents loyally. If there is a need to make a decision unpopular with the faculty at home, make it but only after the conference forges its own sense of self. Too many conferences are reacting tactically rather than operating strategically.

Finally, it's about strategy in the end. How do athletics support the long-term goals and aspirations of an institution?

Wayne Gretzky once said, "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."

The world may be different in the biggest athletics programs and their fate will be judged accordingly. For most institutions, however, college athletics must fit better into a comprehensive institutional vision, develop verifiable metrics to support its contributions to the college community, and anticipate where financial pressures, consumer trends, and shifting priorities will place them to ensure the athletic program ends up "where the puck is going to be."

Can athletics programs make the changes necessary to evolve and prosper as change sweeps over the rest of American higher education?