March Madness

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As I write this week’s blog, college basketball enthusiasts are immersed in the NCAA tournament called “March Madness.” This competition for the national championship draws worldwide attention as fans of all ages fill out their brackets to predict the ultimate winner. The evening news even covers this important national event as President Obama completes his own bracket for the world to see. While I may return to share some thoughts about the important issues of gambling on sports by college students and the graduation rates of college athletes, this time of the year is a good time to think about the general “madness,” which is intercollegiate athletics.

Last week, Inside Higher Education released the results of their Survey of College and University Presidents. Over 1000 presidents, a third of those invited, participated representing all types and sizes of institutions. One of the areas included in the survey was intercollegiate athletics. And the results are fascinating.

A majority of respondents expressed significant concern about athletics and the impact, especially of recent scandals, on the credibility of higher education. Almost 90% indicated that presidents of institutions with high profile athletic programs were not in control of these programs and 75% say that these institutions spend too much money on athletics.

But the madness is evident when a majority of the same respondents say that scandals like those we have seen at Ohio State, Penn State and Syracuse could not happen at their own institutions and that discussions of cutting athletic budgets are not currently under consideration. Why?

My guess is that the presidents of Ohio State, Penn State and Syracuse would have responded a year ago that scandals like these could not happen on their campuses … but they did. And as all colleges face budget challenges in these difficult economic times with limited state and federal support, why not review athletic budgets?

Interviewed as part of the report from Inside Higher Education, William E. (Brit) Kirwan, president of the University System of Maryland and co-chair of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, stated it well, “The survey confirms the need for major reforms but demonstrates why they are so unlikely to occur. As long as the attitude is, 'Things are awful except at my institution,' the status quo will, unfortunately, prevail."

A little known fact is that between 2001 and 2010, almost half of all major intercollegiate sports programs have been punished by the NCAA. The problem is not limited to the few, it is pervasive in big time college programs. Combined with this lack of reality about potential problems at their own institutions, a vast majority of the presidents responding in this survey do not believe that either the NCAA or the federal government can fix things.

Fixing big time college athletics is a huge challenge and I do not have a simple answer. Perhaps you have ideas and would be willing to share them. The challenges are complex and extend beyond the institution’s campus. The madness includes money, TV contracts, benefactors and alumni, corporate sponsors and lots of egos. But it is a problem and it is only getting worse. And it is hard to watch big time college sports and believe in the philosophy of amateur athletics. But let me end with an image.

Last week my wife and I were in Florida for a few days visiting alumnae/i and supporting our baseball and softball teams competing in spring break tournaments. Our student-athletes had to raise money so that these trips could be possible. At the games last week, these student-athletes carried in the equipment and helped to prepare the fields. During the games, players on the bench chased foul balls so they could be reused in the game. As I looked towards the bench during one game, I watched a softball player getting something out of her duffel bag. To reach the piece of equipment she needed, she had to dig under her textbooks.

Small colleges are not immune to problems with their programs and student-athletes. Sadly, our teams do not always display good sportsmanship and a few of our students behave badly and are disciplined. But athletics is secondary to education. And there is nothing mad about that!

(As always, your comments and ideas are welcome.)




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Guest Thursday, 31 July 2014