Thoughts from WT: Intercollegiate Sports Organizations

Third in a series on intercollegiate athletics.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is large (720 full-time employees and $1.06 billion in annual revenue). For decades, the weight of a dense bureaucracy and its impact on millions of intercollegiate athletes and multiplied millions of fans has been the altar on which institutional autonomy has been sacrificed. This gave force to Admiral Hyman Rickover’s famous quote: “If you are going to sin, sin against God, not against bureaucracy.” God will forgive you but the bureaucracy will not. Controlling such a complex matrix of organizational parameters is impossible without rigidity, which makes filing a federal tax return seem like a free game.

The challenges are recognized. Leading the NCAA for a decade, Mark Emmert has been humiliated by lawsuits over a student-athlete’s ability to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL). He wouldn’t fight an unwinnable battle. He suggested that the 1,200 institutions and organizations guided by NCAA regulations take a “less homogenous approach.” Finally, after a decade of leadership, with a breath of common sense sparked by tumultuous change plaguing the juggernaut, the NCAA has folded its tent on a matter of critical importance. In an interview with The Associated Press, Emmert joked, “You know, if we were to rebuild college sports, and in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?” He continued, “What would we change? What would we expect or want to be different in how we handle it? And it’s good. It is the right time. After a century? Ten years ago, that would have been a bold move. At the moment, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowles has suggested that the NCAA prospect, NIL, “was meant to save us from being sued.” Authentic leadership prescribes a path to a powerful future and moves forward, sustained by the support of those who are led.

The challenge is now what it has always been. Similarities between Division I and Division III conferences are non-existent. Compare Alabama (and Nick Saban) in the Southeastern Conference to Huntingdon College (and Mike Turk) in the US Southern Conference: Both in Alabama require pitches, balls, helmets and cleats . After that, the similarities evaporate. Organizations with this range of mission, purpose, resources and impact must be governed in response to mission and direction. Both institutions are excellent (as are the coaches) but radically different. According to 2020 NCAA data, nationally, total revenue generated ranges from $392 million for the largest Division I budget to $10,850 for the smallest Division III budget. Immeasurable billions of dollars flow into institutions and individual communities, impacting the economy, and 3% of schools get 97% of the attention. This is not surprising, although a little disappointing. True student-athletes can get involved in most schools.

The caveats about the influence of money on intercollegiate athletics are not new. We saw it at the beginning of the 20th century at Yale. In a study published in “College Sports”, concerns about the impact of money on college sports have again been raised. The basketball scandal of 1951 and 1952, the corruption that developed after World War II, the critique of the profit motive, the professional aspect of the amateur status of players, NIL, the challenges of university education and the role of alumni, coaches, and institutions and the negative impacts they have brought to intercollegiate athletics. It was half a century after the payola revelations to a Yale celebrity.

And we are still there. A Chicago Tribune op-ed in April 2020 by former US Congressman Tom McMillan and former Chancellor of the University System of Maryland Britt Kirwan offered several remedies. Unfortunately, they fail. Institutional leadership and more substantial mission-based autonomy are essential and AWOL. A maze of Indianapolis bureaucratic processes can’t do it. Emmert said so. According to Bloomberg and The New York Times, Myles Brand’s prescient concerns 15 years ago about the disproportionate impact of corporate athletics on many campus environments were legitimate.

Karen Weaver in Forbes says “It’s time for innovation at NCAA conferences.” NCAA Supreme Court warrants against Alston don’t suit the multitude of campuses represented, though they might be perfect for the Power Five. The institution’s mission and purpose are beggars in a “one size fits all” model. A lack of leadership in higher education has pushed these challenges to the forefront of policy makers. How is it possible? It’s easy to blame the NCAA, the opaque bureaucracy, the endless chain of staff and committees that result in flawed “groupthink.” But, as Pogo said, “I saw the enemy and it’s us.” Weaver said, “Where college presidents used to look to other conferences (or the NCAA) to provide ideas or safeguards, now each conference is an island unto itself.”

In the Lone Star Conference, we like to think that we are focused on mission and purpose. This happens because campus leaders — presidents and athletic directors — keep their eyes on the ball. Conference and campus leadership must be exercised, not excised. From our Panhandle perch, it seems that old-fashioned decision-making that serves the institution and its employees is the answer. We know our students, our fans and our needs. We are not perfect. But what has the NCAA perfected so far?

There’s a way to make it work, but the lack of focus on the main mission is a wild ride.

Walter V. Wendler is president of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at Michael McBroom is director of varsity athletics at West Texas A&M University.

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