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Some Principles to Guide the Changing Face of College Athletics


Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell

Seldom have the shifting sands upon which college athletics are built been more apparent than today. For those of us who have an interest in college sports, including millions of loyal alumni, the choice of an athletic conference is roughly tantamount to “the company that you keep.”

At innumerable colleges and universities, nothing stirs alumni passion and donor support more than athletics. Regrettably, athletics is too often the defining face of higher education.

The reasons are complex ― psychological, socio-cultural, and economic ― but few institutions lead successfully with the quality of their education program. College and university websites, often the first “curbside appeal” moment for prospective applicants, typically disproportionately cite athletics over academics in their news section.

Let’s be clear about the value of athletics. A good athletic program can bring a community together. It inspires loyalty among alumni, the local community, students, faculty, staff and donors. The best athletic programs teach student-athletes valuable lessons in time management, competitiveness, ethics and how to work in a collaborative setting. And, athletics sometimes equates with good fundraising numbers.

In short, at most colleges and universities, athletics is a time-honored, invaluable addition to the residential learning experience.

At the same time, athletic programs can drive an institution’s agenda inappropriately, particularly if alumni trustees fail to embrace their larger stewardship role beyond athletics. In these situations, good universities suffer from the narrowness of a “jockplex” complex. In an effort to meet the rigors of Division I athletics, for example, some institutions maintain a “separate but more than equal” learning experience, keeping their student-athletes in a kind of “jock boot camp” to ensure high performance and persistence to graduation.

As higher education institutions desperately seek new revenue, the promise of big-time athletics can outstrip the reality of how an institution can be overwhelmed by athletic success. While the obvious example is Penn State, a review of salary structure, facilities redesign and new construction, and administrative bloat raises serious questions about the use of fundraising time and bond capacity to support athletics.

At a minimum, institutions considering an upgrade in athletic programs should consider the following:

  • Does the institution lead with its academic program as its public face, and does athletics support key aspects of the residential learning experience?
  • Is the athletic conference policy direction under the direct control of the presidents, or does athletic staff shape as well as implement policy, whether directly or indirectly?
  • Do the individual institutions within the conference reflect the common ethos and values among its institutions?
  • Can NCAA policy more precisely reflect the interests of the majority of its members rather than serve as a policy stamp supporting the institutions running the largest and most lucrative athletic programs?
  • Are television/cable dollars driving conference decisions, and, if so, are institutional aspirations out of sync with the reality of the program they provide?
  • Does the athletic program support and build off key institutional admission strategies?
  • Do colleges and universities run too many athletic programs because it is easier to field a program than to end one?
  • Do philanthropists unnecessarily drive facilities and program design?
  • Should accrediting agencies look more closely at the “all-in” costs of athletics, particularly as revenue streams from all sources fail to keep pace with pent-up demands for quality, reasonably priced academics?
  • Should athletics be capped as a percentage of operating and capital expenses, depending more upon donor support by increasing their percentage toward its costs and future needs?

American higher education has a number of difficult choices to make as it confronts new fiscal realities. Among the most important will be how to protect and nurture the programs that best define its sense of self.

At most institutions, the athletic program is inexorably intertwined with an institution’s admission strategy, strategic goals, fundraising efforts and levels of legislative, trustee and alumni support. So too are lucrative cable contracts, regional and national visibility, and institutional “brand” at many of America’s colleges and universities. These are inescapable facts.

Yet there are other realities. It is unlikely that the comprehensive fee charged by American colleges and universities will rise much more than a point above inflation without a public outcry. Operation and capital budgets are stressed, with no end in sight. Rising, pent-up demands on resources grow across the campus. In a cost-benefit analysis between an academic building and athletic facility in the future, which program is likely to win out?

A partial solution must be to put athletic programs on a strict diet by making them more closely match ambition to resources. Further, higher education leadership must differentiate the value and shape, and define the athletic program by purpose, size, and strategy, and relate institutional athletic ambitions to more robust, president-directed conferences that build alumni, donor and fan support.

In the end, it’s about the education. Athletics must find a way to make its contribution to the “core business” more clear or face dwindling levels of support, as most colleges not at the level of Division I make hard choices about how best to ration available resources.

College athletics deserves more attention, better focus and intensified strategic planning soon.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. He is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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