A suggestion for college coaches: teach by example

While most will remember the 1997 National Collegiate Athletic
Association’s (NCAA) men’s basketball Final Four Tournament for the
University of Arizona’s improbable run to a national championship, the
most significant collegiate sports event of that particular weekend
occurred off the court.

Amid all the hoop hysteria, the National Association of Black
Coaches (NABC) called for a summit with high school coaches and the
National Basketball Association (NBA) to figure out how to emphasize
the importance of education and to keep high school and college
student-athletes from leaving school early to play professionally. The
coaches claim, correctly, that there needs to be a standard model for
providing young student-athletes advice and, at the core of that model,
there must be an emphasis on the importance of education.

“It’s time for high school coaches to play a more prominent role
like they used to,” says Mike Jarvis, head coach at George Washington

“People aren’t talking to them earlier about the value of
education,” adds Duke University’s Mike Kryzyzewski (also known as
“Coach K”). “We would like to see more communication between the kid
and the coach.”

While Coach K is correct about the importance of education, it is
arguable whether a coach is the best person for student-athletes to
receive advice from about that particular topic – and whether college
coaches should talk about it at all.

Historically, college coaches have justified their existence by
claiming that they are educators. A coach’s classroom, it is said, is
the field or court – where the lessons taught in discipline, teamwork
and sportsmanship are as important as those learned in the chemistry
lab or English class.

But despite these high-minded claims that intercollegiate athletics
are about education, it is obvious that they are increasingly about
entertainment, money and winning. Student-athletes see coaches making
six figures from lucrative endorsements. They know that millions of
fans are watching them play on television. They pick up on the mixed
message sent when they are referred to as “players” and “athletes”
rather than “students” and “student-athletes.” And they note the
not-so-subtle messages that are articulated when they are steered to
less demanding majors, when NCAA rules are broken in recruiting, or
when games are scheduled at night for television audiences. High school
coaches see the same things.

Given these inconsistencies, it is ironic that coaches express alarm
at the increasing number of underclassmen and high school seniors who
are leaving school early to turn professional. Coaches should be the
last to cry, “Foul!” After all, coaches build athletic programs
centered around maximizing the athletic performance of student-athletes
to win games and generate money for athletic department coffers. They
recruit based upon athletic ability. From the moment a student-athlete
sets foot on campus, they begin a training process designed to maximize
athletic production. While giving lip service to academic achievement,
it is athletic excellence that is emphasized and rewarded. And when a
product of this system develops athletically to a point that
precipitates a move to turn professional, coaches suddenly begin to
voice grave concerns over the athlete’s personal and academic welfare.

These student-athletes are leaving for one reason: business. They
are simply applying the lessons the system has taught them. And the
primary lesson that is taught – not through words, but through everyday
actions – is that college athletics is a business. They will keep
leaving as long as the system continues to place their athletic
development before their academic and personal development – and
business before education.

Rhetoric about the long term value of education rings hollow when it
is compared to short term “win-at-all-cost” actions. Student-athletes
might not be informed about the specifics of running an athletic
department, but they are not dumb. If they are not getting what they
were promised, a legitimate chance to earn a meaningful degree in
exchange for their athletic performance, better to move on to a
contract that holds water.

This is not to trivialize the NABC’s message. It is an important
one. The organization should be applauded for wanting to highlight it.
However, their message to youngsters regarding the importance of
education seems disingenuous when it appears that the coaches
themselves have not embraced the ideal.

One way of judging a person’s commitment to education is to look at
his or her own level of education. Yet, a 1993 study found that less
than one half of Division I coaches in all sports possessed advanced
degrees – and 2.4 percent lacked even a bachelor’s degree. Although
earning an advanced degree is not absolutely essential to being an
effective teacher, investing the time, effort and expense to earn one
demonstrates an individual’s belief in, and commitment to, the value of
education – particularly one who claims to be an educator.

Before college coaches begin to preach the importance of education,
the N, ABC, along with; other coaches associations, would be better
served to actively address their profession’s lack of commitment to
academics. The following suggestions should be helpful:

First, develop a suggested minimum set of standards for coaches.
Sometimes it appears that the only credential necessary to become a
college coach is the ability to hang a whistle around your neck. There
are no national standards. The NABC should develop a set of suggested
Coaching credentials, with the minimum being a master’s degree.

The association should also encourage universities to offer
incentives for coaches who obtain advanced degrees while on campus. Is
there a single coach’s contract that includes a financial bonus to
encourage the completion of advanced degrees?

Further, to provide aspiring coaches an opportunity to prepare for
their role as coach-educator, the NCAA, in partnership with a
university, should establish a coaching institute. There, aspiring
coaches could complete a coach-as-educator curriculum.

Second, professional opportunities should be developed. Once coaches
are hired, they should be provided meaningful opportunities to refine
and develop their teaching skills. Most professional development
opportunities offered through coaching associations focus on coaching
techniques and strategies directly related to the game. If coaches are
to be positive educational role models and successful spokespersons for
education, they must be provided with the opportunity to develop their
skills in these areas too. Many professions, including the medical and
legal professions, require such in-service training.

Discussion regarding the role of athletics in higher education will
challenge coaches to consider the fact that athletics are simply one
component of a larger academic community and not a standalone
enterprise. Presenting issues in student development will raise
awareness of the myriad challenges facing students today. Coaches must
also be encouraged to consider the educational responsibilities
inherent in being a member of an academic community – that their job
entails more than “Xs and Os” and game strategy. Such programs should
be developed for all coaches – particularly new coaches.

Finally, coaches must begin an aggressive, organized campaign to
pressure athletic directors, presidents, faculty, and boards of
trustees to begin to address – in earnest – the pervading
win-at-all-cost philosophy surrounding their athletic programs. It is
this call for a de-emphasis in the importance of the final score that
is most likely to be dismissed as unrealistic.

Or is it?

According to a 1990 poll conducted for the Knight Commission on
Athletics by Louis Harris and Associates, Inc., when asked to choose
one factor that should be the primary consideration of a big-time
athletic program, 87 percent of presidents, 93 percent of trustees, 88
percent of athletic directors, 76 percent of faculty, and 93 percent of
coaches indicated “making sure student-athletes get an education.” Even
an overwhelming majority of the public surveyed (91 percent) believed
in this goal. This was compared to 8 percent of presidents, 7 percent
of trustees, 25 percent of athletic directors and 33 percent of coaches
who said that making sure student-athletes get an education is the
primary goal of most big-time programs.

Undoubtably, influencing a shift in our society’s win-at-all-cost
mindset will be a difficult challenge. Despite the fact that most,
including the general public, agree that college athletics should be
about more than winning games, it is all too easy to quickly dismiss
what should be for what apparently is. But there is an inherent flaw in
this approach as it applies to higher education. Specifically, it
involves the issue of whether higher education leaders should follow
public opinion or attempt to lead it.

Granted, educational leaders may not be in a position to directly
address our society’s obsession with winning. But that same society
looks to higher education to provide educational leadership. Thus,
there is no doubt that higher education leaders have the right – and
indeed a responsibility – to address the issue of how that philosophy
applies to athletics in an educational setting. On this point, there
can be no dispute.

It is critical for coaches to begin to take control of their own
game by not only speaking out forcefully on the issue, but also by
placing pressure on higher education leaders to address the corrosive
philosophy that drives their athletic programs. Only when this pressure
is reduced, will coaches be able to function effectively as educators.
And if anyone is qualified to teach us that the true value of sport is
not in the winning but rather in the act of striving toward excellence,
it is the coach. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson they can
teach us.

While the NABC’s call for a summit with high schools and the NBA is
a good idea, they would be wise to reconsider the meeting’s primary
agenda item. Before they even consider talking about ways to emphasize
to young people the importance of investing in education, they had
better work on instilling those same values in the people who coach

Dr. John R. Gerdy is a visiting professor in Sports Administration
at Ohio University. His book, The Successful College Athletic Program:
The New Standard was released last month as part of the American
Council on Eduction/Oryx Press (Phoenix) Series on Higher Education.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com