May 1, 2020
In college sports, what really matters is not “new,” but rather should be normal. I am a collegiate athletic director and Olympian. Over my 30 year career in sports and administration, I have often said, to the dismay of the audience, “Look, I know that at any point in time, we can send everyone home, turn the key and not do sports for a while.” Hmmm … a premonition? Truly, this is simply a recognition of the notion that as awesome and important as sports are for students, they are not life and death and should not be given the kind of power, value and mythical status that our society has assigned them.
I am among the most competitive people that you will find. However, college sports is my chosen profession because of the internal lasting impact on the participant ,not the fancy fanfare of the facilities and the fanatics. This terrible public health crises with real consequences is on all of our minds and so to for many includes the bizarre ending of spring college sports which was a real disappointment for our student-athletes. I am sorry for those athletes and students who had their academic year end this way; I suppose I am also sorry for those who have felt the void of no college sports (or professional sports) to watch for entertainment. I am certainly most sorry for the human toll that the virus is having on life and livelihood.
As we ponder college sports in the Covid world, I have some thoughts from a unique perspective. The trick will be to figure out what parts of college sports to return to and what parts to let go. What to re-emphasize and what to de-emphasize, if you will.
We should emphasize and recommit to a student-centered educational model with student health, education and personal development as the first, middle, last and only reason to do college sports. A fun and worthwhile diversion, stress relief and character laboratory. Period. Many programs do this well right now! If we fix this as the north star, right now, for all of our decision making, we will make great choices and we can re-emerge next year to a meaningful experience for students in some fashion. If we are led by rock solid integrity on this foundational principal, then we will have the courage to adapt, re-formulate and emerge in service of students and thus the educational model. A more local and regional model, without financial scholarships and a philosophical identity of academics first and one in which athletes are indistinguishable from the rest of the student body the … oh wait … we have that model, it’s Division 3! Many Division 3 schools are able and willing to lead these actions because we have not leveraged our souls to the financial pressures of the entertainment model. We can and will adapt because we experience college sports as part of campus, not extra or in spite of campus.
This is not to say that by definition D1 and D2 schools do not prioritize student development. It is just that many have allowed their college sports to be supported by straying into deals with the devils of revenue creation, enrollment goals or straight up uber ego-driven, misplaced priorities of ridiculously high salaries, over-reliance on donations and hyper-construction of stadia and arenas lesser used and over built.
The other danger in this Covid world is that universities will use financial strain to cut whole programs, rather than cut the actual fat. The fat is not the non-revenue sports. The fat is in the gross employment packages, the hundreds of staff where much less will do. The fat is in competitive driven facilities and “gear packages” and keeping up with the Joneses. While I enjoy watching both college and professional sports as a diversion, we must not allow these entertainment drivers to impact our decisions, now or ever, as we reopen and re-engage in on campus learning.
The big business model of college sports has needed massive re-evaluation and rebooting for quite some time now. I am not suggesting that sports teams providing school spirit is not awesome or that spectatorship is not a valid positive pastime. I am simply reminding our collective conscience that these are byproducts, not the raison d’etre of college sports.
Lots of good can come out of this awful and bizarre time. Let’s hope that college sports leadership finds its moral compass and courage now, too. I urge my colleagues and college Presidents to focus on the athletes and the experience, not on the fans and the revenue. I call on us all to find and use our moral compass and courage during this forced pause to make needed changes.