he Division I-A football bowl season has begun and will culminate with the first national-championship game. Conferences have been realigned to accommodate media markets, Division I governance rests in the hands of a few conferences, and soon legal decisions will determine whether these athletes are employees and eligible for a range of institutional benefits. Intercollegiate athletics has entered a new era.
Notably absent from these decisions, though, is how the changes, over time, will affect the primary academic mission of higher education and the role of college athletics. Absent a real connection with the academic mission, institutions risk underwriting an athletics establishment that at its highest competitive level is a fully commercialized enterprise. Economic power will become the dominant force in predicting athletics success.
The recent changes in Division I-A challenge, perhaps irrevocably, the educational values and amateur ideal in which college athletics is presumably rooted. And, like most changes that have taken place over the past 25 years in the big-time programs, it takes only a few years for the same pressures and aspirations to make their way through the rest of Division I and Divisions II and III.
The athletics programs at a majority of colleges have been well rooted in the institutional mission, and student-athletes’ academic outcomes mirror reasonably well those of their nonathlete peers. But on some campuses, the challenge to maintain a balance between sports and academia, to sustain a student culture that is reflective of institutional academic and social priorities, and to ensure a well-integrated and -resourced athletics program, is driving decisions that may have a negative impact on the institution. Perhaps recent national events have unintentionally opened the door for like-minded colleges to reimagine long-entrenched expectations and practices.
It isn’t a matter of putting the genie back into the bottle or otherwise going back to some halcyon days that may never have existed. Rather, the question for some colleges is how the organization of intercollegiate athletics can be reframed to better manage resources and to reaffirm that athletics supports the educational mission.
By focusing on the following key areas and being open to thinking differently about the organization of athletics competition, institutions can recast their athletics programs and control the escalating costs required to achieve competitive equity.
Admissions. To achieve a sustainable balance between academic and athletic commitments, there must be a shift in the all-too-prevalent perception that a sports credential wholly justifies admission. Admission to a college is fundamentally about the pursuit of learning.
The sports credential is an expression of athletic talent and potential contribution to an athletics program. And success in high-school athletics may tell admissions officers something about a student’s character, determination, and commitment.
But when it comes to sports, admissions offices should be judged by how admitted student-athletes do academically in college—not just how they look academically when applying. Do they underperform, relative to their credentials and relative to peers who are not athletes? Have they taken full advantage of the educational opportunities offered them? And how (and what) do they do after graduating? The admissions process should also be an opportunity to evaluate coaches and their ability to identify both academic and athletic talent, foretelling success in the classroom and on the field.
The student-athlete experience. If, at the end of four years, a student’s primary self-worth and identification is as a pitcher, a rebounder, or a swimmer, then both the institution and the athletics department have failed. Such an outcome calls into question the responsibility of each of them to provide transformative experiences that foster learning and personal maturation. Anything less questions the commitment that a coach and an athletics department have to the institution’s academic priorities.
Academic outcomes. Measuring academic outcomes is about more than a grade. Does the athlete have an advanced body of knowledge in a discipline? Is there intellectual confidence, a sharpened sense of inquiry, an improved ability to write and present sound oral arguments? Has the student acquired an expanded sense of self in a global world with the confidence to knit together the sum of his/her academic, intellectual, social, and athletic experiences? Should success be based solely on quantifiable measures such as the first job, the first paycheck, immediate postgraduation plans? Or are there additional measures of success that should be evaluated in later years?
Institutional oversight. Institutional reporting structures vary widely, and the reporting office matters less than the relationship itself. How an athletic director is supported and then held accountable for a well-integrated athletics culture that prizes academic achievement, campus citizenship, fiscal responsibility, and the student-athlete experience should be the highest priority for successful institutional oversight.
Win-loss records are often the tipping point for coaches when it comes to contract renewal. But a comprehensive evaluation of coaches should include admissions officers, deans, athletic directors, and student-athletes’ feedback, to determine both the totality of the student-athlete experience and the program’s success.
Competition and national-tournament aspirations. One way to mitigate the escalation of resources devoted to high-stakes athletics is for conferences to select a sport(s) and choose the conference championship as the goal instead of the entry qualification for NCAA-championship participation. The lack of national-championship participation has never affected the value and quality of a college degree or an individual institution’s academic and research reputation. Colleges would have greater freedom to moderate resource commitments without the pressures of the national-championship “arms race” while still endorsing highly competitive conference play.
From singular institutional programs to an athletics consortium. For colleges that already sponsor academic partnerships with nearby campuses, creating an athletics consortium is an extension of cooperative academic resourcing. An athletics consortium shares student-athletes, teams, governance, facilities, and coaching staffs. By combining programs, colleges share the competitive and program requirements for conference and NCAA-championship access. This is not without challenges; athletics builds pride in the institutional brand, and changing that brand isn’t easy. But a consortium reduces the individual institutional commitment of resources while maintaining and perhaps enhancing competitive equity within a conference.
All of those efforts will take time, patience, and collaboration, along with courage and a cache of political capital. But even given all that, the question, for some colleges, remains: Can intercollegiate athletics be reframed to better manage resources and to reaffirm that athletics supports the institutional mission? The answer is yes.
Amy Campbell is assistant vice president for university services at Princeton University.