III. Building Blocks and Positioning
American higher education is unique in its embrace of intercollegiate athletics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in universities with “big-time” sports programs, where athletics can appear to overwhelm the academic side of the house. Most presidents enter their roles with little to no preparation for overseeing athletic programs. Rightly or wrongly, the visibility and impact of athletic departments often mean that a president’s performance will often be gauged by success in sports as much as what happens in the laboratory or classroom. Ready or not, presidents will be held accountable for the successes and failures of athletic programs on and off the field or court.
Presidents need to make conscious decisions about how they engage with athletic departments. They must find the right balance of direct and indirect involvement that fits their style and their unique situation. Similarly, new presidents need thoughtful strategies for learning the complexities of an often-alien environment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly today, presidents must recognize the dramatic changes underway in college athletics and be prepared to adjust strategies – perhaps radically so – to find the right role for sports on campus.
Most university presidents have heard the old saying, “A president’s job security is dependent on providing three things: parking for the faculty, social life for the students, and football for the alumni.” This essay is about the latter. The first two I will leave to other authors.
Nothing about American universities befuddles international observers more than college sports. European or Asian university administrators find it bewildering as to why American higher education has so wholeheartedly embraced intercollegiate athletics. Other nations have campus sports teams, but nothing that remotely compares with the drama and pageantry of March Madness or the College Football Playoffs. These totally engrossing events are much more than recreational sports played by college students. They have become iconic parts of American culture. Intercollegiate athletics has become one of the defining attributes of American college life. The popular image of an American campus—large or small—includes football or basketball games, pep bands, and cheer squads. American college presidents are expected to oversee not just the classroom and the laboratory but also the stadium and the arena. Nowhere is that truer than at schools known for high revenue, big-time sports. And nowhere else are the challenges greater.
From very modest beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, college athletics exploded in size, scale, and economics. What began as an intramural activity overseen by students and alumni is now a multi-billion-dollar enterprise engaged in by small private liberal arts colleges, mammoth state research universities, and everything in between. Within the NCAA alone students from over 1,100 schools compete on over 19,000 teams in more than two dozen different sports. More than 500,000 college athletes annually play NCAA sports. Today pre-collegiate youth sports include many millions of high school students nurturing the hope of playing in college, many striving for a Division I scholarship. Many prospective college students consider the opportunity to play sports a critical factor when choosing a school. Other prospective students are often attracted to the social environment and name recognition that comes with successful intercollegiate athletics. Whether on the biggest stages with 100,000-seat stadiums and national television broadcasts or smaller arenas and local rivalries, college sports provide a way to engage with classmates and have fun. Whether playing or cheering, sports is an integral part of many college students’ lives.
The same is true for alumni and community members. The nearly religious devotion of American college sports fans is legendary. Less well recognized is the sheer economic impact on local communities, with shops, bars, hotels, and restaurants often dependent on the flow of fans to town. The passion shown for college teams can be an exhilarating source of pride or the cause of anguish and resentment. Win or lose, fans let university presidents know about their sentiments. It is commonly assumed that a university leader has the same passion for sports as the campus community at large. The president, on paper at least, is in charge and therefore responsible, at least in part, for the joy or angst felt by fans. When things on the field go well, the president is expected to join in the celebration. When they go wrong, the president is expected to fix it, fast.
These pressures tax a president’s ability to oversee athletic programs and keep them in equilibrium with the other responsibilities of the job. Staying astride the bucking horse of big-time college sports is one of the most challenging tasks a president faces. Typically, it is a task for which very few presidents are well prepared when they take office.
Congratulations, You’re the Boss—Sort of
It is rare to find a university president who was a varsity college athlete in one of the highest profile sports—football or basketball—especially from one of the prominent sports teams. Most presidents come to their positions through career routes that do not require much attention to athletic programs. The great majority of new presidents have very little meaningful experience overseeing college sports. For many the athletic department is an alien landscape unlike the familiar environs of the lab or the library. With its distinctive culture and community, athletic departments are seldom a natural home for presidents.
Presidents are therefore faced with one of two choices. They can accept the natural order of things: sports have always been part of the campus and always will be, so therefore hire a capable athletic director and let well enough alone. Or they can venture onto foreign turf and dig into it—somewhat like an anthropologist coming to grips with how others live. Both choices have risks and rewards.
The first choice is the obvious one. Lacking expertise and having limited ability to influence program direction, a president may decide to let the professionals do their work. The same could be said of academic medical centers or agriculture extension services. The responsibility of the president heading in this direction is to make sound hiring decisions, set clear expectations and guidelines, review the management and financial data, and evaluate performance. In other words, be a solid professional themselves.
Why choose this route? First, it recognizes some realities. Presidents do indeed have constrained authority when it comes to big-time sports—and even in less-than-big-time sports, for that matter. A glance at any org chart shows the president sitting on top of everything. But a line on a chart is not the same as organizational power. When asked by a member of the faculty senate why not simply eliminate the troublesome and expensive football program, an honest president will answer, “Because if I do, at the next senate meeting, during which you will meet my replacement, you will also learn that football has been reinstated by the board.” Becoming involved in coaching choices, helping recruit star athletes, fundraising for athletic causes, or being seen as overly sports-friendly can take presidents outside their comfort zone and beyond their real authority, organization chart be damned. When presidents become aggressively engaged in sports programs, they need to recognize they have stepped into a potential minefield. Professional discretion makes great sense.
And what are the downsides of keeping managerial distance from sports? Errors of omission. Precisely because high-profile sports have such outsized impact on campus and community, the expectations of oversight and control are higher, often unrealistically so. Fans want to win—now. Local business leaders expect the streets to be full of game-day shoppers. Alumni want to brag at the dinner party. And they all believe the president can deliver the goods. Presidents who stay removed from sports programs can have a harder time gaining traction with the athletic department and its many constituents. College sports are often conducted on the edge of the campus, both physically and figuratively. Out of sight and out of mind is a risky proposition for any activity, but especially one that is poorly understood and only partially controlled. Should something go wrong on or off the field, board members and the broader community will point to that very same organization chart. The buck will indeed stop at the president’s desk. A hands-off management style will never be an acceptable excuse for a lack of awareness.
The alternative approach to overseeing intercollegiate athletics is to engage more actively with the department, athletes, personnel, and constituents. This commits presidents to learning what they do not know, the ins and outs of college sports at the ground level. For new presidents the questions abound. Do the realities of life for student athletes match up to the recruiting pitch parents are hearing? Do coaches’ behaviors line up to espoused values? Is gender equity a real priority or a catchphrase? Is the desire to win consistent with real world resources and in the best interests of athletes? What is this thing, the NCAA? The only way presidents can get honest answers is to actively seek them out in person and through trusted staff. Decoding the culture of an athletic department isn’t easy. Presidents are usually foreigners in this land, sometimes welcomed, sometimes not.
A hands-on approach to managing anything requires spending time listening and learning. Athletics is no different. As casual fans, many of us assume we know much more about college sports than we actually do. But as president, that assumption can crash a career. The information and knowledge needed are not arcane or secretive, but they must be sought out and learned. Asking questions of and listening to your own people is the place to start, especially your athletic director. Some staff will be pleasantly surprised—even shocked—that their very own president wants to learn more about the athletic department and what they do and why. This is not just a matter of hearing what the highest profile coach thinks, but also the medical team and trainers, the academic support staff, and the budget director. Personnel processes, financial decision-making, and even capital construction are often run quite differently than they are in the rest of the campus. In some cases the athletic department is run through a quasi-independent nonprofit organization. New presidents have to master these elements quickly.
Similarly, big-time athletic programs typically come with their own fundraising arm that may operate alongside of—and in some cases in competition with—main campus development efforts. Presidents need to learn their distinct approaches and what they have to offer. They will be the ones pulled into debates about who gets priority access to lead prospects. Donors frequently give to both athletics and academics, but the competitive juices of development officers know no bounds. The dean of engineering may have much to offer a potential donor in the way of recognition and intangible rewards, but can she or he deliver center court seats for a championship game? For a president to sort these matters it is essential to have a working familiarity with sports.
Much like everything else in higher education, seeking out colleagues and professionals with significant experience on the ground is invaluable. Presidents within an athletic conference are a useful source of expertise, particularly the president who represents the conference to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). These presidents are not just your academic peers but also your athletic peers. Seeking out those who have taken a hands-on approach and lived to tell the tale is a great place to start. Many have learned by trial and error what it takes to hire an athletic director who can be your trusted partner, or how to manage a high-profile coach’s contract negotiations or address a case of severe misconduct. Learn from them. Ask questions. Most presidents deal with these issues once or perhaps twice in a career so the opportunity for on-the-job training is limited. Sharing experience and advice in advance of a crisis is critical.
The same learning curve also applies to a president’s key staff members. It is not uncommon for main campus leaders in communications, budget and finance, human resources, and legal affairs to have limited direct exposure to big-time athletic departments. As athletic budgets swell, so do their own specialized staff, engaging less and less with the main campus. Sports information offices turn into full-blown PR operations. Budget directors become well-staffed finance and facilities offices. Without engaged presidential oversight athletic departments can spin off into very independent entities sometimes at odds with the overall goals of the university. In athletic departments that have separate nonprofit organizational status this tendency is especially pronounced. If, however, presidents seek coordination across their entire leadership team—academic and athletic—then they must engage with each other. The president must get them all on the same page about goals, values, and focus. Competing legal or PR opinions from within the university are not the president’s friend. Worse, competition and professional jealousies can produce dysfunction and even subterfuge.
The most fraught challenge for presidents at major sports schools can be board relations. Sports often prove to be an irresistible preoccupation for some board members. Friends, colleagues, and most anyone at any given cocktail party will corner board members and deliver private views on the performance of the football team. Board members will be pressed to opine on coaches, recruiting, and play calling. That is expected and, let’s be honest, fun. Others, however, will go a step further to befriend the coaches themselves and even individual athletes, sometimes with the strong encouragement of boosters. The allure of being a sports insider is powerful stuff for some. Presidents of big-time sports programs must continually strive to maintain the right balance between their role and that of their board. Direct discussions with one’s bosses are not always easy. But it is helpful to review everyone’s roles before there is a crisis in the athletic department, not during or after. Establishing clarity about roles, responsibilities, and authority for hiring athletic directors and coaches, for budget and fundraising decisions, for responding to an NCAA matter, or even for seemingly simple things like ticket allocation, is much easier before a problem arises than after. Board members rarely think they should have the final say on hiring a provost. The athletic director or football coach may well be a very different matter. If there are disagreements about respective authority between the president and the board, it is much better to find out in advance.
It’s All About the Student-Athletes—Until It’s Not
Over 115 years ago the NCAA was founded by a small group of university presidents. Intercollegiate athletics was already ubiquitous and extremely popular on campus and off. It was also wildly dangerous, largely untethered to academics, and utterly unregulated. In 1904 alone there were eighteen deaths on the football field. Many presidents, editorial pages, and politicians had seen enough. They demanded change. So in 1905 sixty-two founding schools set forth their views on the fundamental principles of college sports. First, intercollegiate athletes must be students playing other students, and the activities should be structured so as to not interfere with but rather promote academic success. Second, the health and wellness of these athletes should be promoted and protected to the fullest extent possible. Third, the games should be conducted in a way that furthers fairness among competitors and for the athletes, providing a level playing field for all. These principles have been reaffirmed by NCAA boards again and again. For campus presidents these concepts can and should be touchstones for overseeing athletic departments (Crowley 2006).
These three principles still guide the presidents, athletic administrators, and faculty representatives who serve voluntarily on NCAA boards and committees. Their work, past and present, has dramatically improved college sports for athletes. All NCAA sports are now played under rules aimed to protect safety and provide fairness. Schools recruit athletes not just with bigger stadiums and fancy amenities but also with training facilities and nutritional programs. Every major athletic department now includes academic support staff to assist athletes in their studies, trainers and medical professionals to help athletes remain healthy and fit, mental health experts, and much more—all reflecting the three basic principles. At the campus level presidents can use this same template for decision-making. When new investments are being proposed, new hires being made, or a new media deal being struck, a few simple questions will serve a president well: Will this support or discourage the academic success of our athletes? Will it promote our athletes’ physical and mental health and well-being? Is it fair for all involved, especially the athletes playing the game?
Nationally, the results of following these principles have been impressive. Within Division I, the highest level of NCAA competition, across the country college athletes have higher graduation rates than their peers. African American athletes’ graduation rates are typically 12 percent higher than their counterparts on campus. Similarly, the health care, training and nutrition support provided DI athletes is impressive, with obvious outcomes in the prevention and management of injuries. Further, the overall financial assistance offered to today’s athletes dwarfs that of a generation ago. There is no doubt that campuses are serving college athletes very well today (NCAA Report 2022).
And yet there is growing concern that college athletes are being exploited for the sake of money to be made by universities—that they are treated not as students but as unpaid “employees” serving the school rather than the other way around. The rapid growth in revenue brought in by athletic departments is doubtlessly at the heart of these concerns. Indeed, to the outside world it often appears that college sports is focused not on the athletes but on chasing media contracts and ticket sales to afford ever higher coach’s salaries and swankier locker rooms. They see coaches richly rewarded for winning games and wonder at what cost to athletes. These are reasonable questions. New multibillion-dollar media contracts are announced with regularity. Sports budgets have grown much more rapidly than academic budgets. Salaries in athletic departments have exploded relative to those of the faculty in recent years. The public at large doesn’t see graduation rates. They see dollar signs.
Throughout its history college athletics has faced a quandary: Does it exist primarily to promote the development of its student athletes, or does it exist primarily to provide sports entertainment for the masses. The answer is both. University presidents overseeing big-time sports find themselves straddling these two functions. Getting the balance right is the great challenge of college sports. Winning games, especially in football and men’s basketball, pleases everyone. Plus, it can produce the revenue needed to support the athletes, hire coaches, build new facilities—all of which are needed to continue to win games. On its face this appears to be a virtuous cycle. But that is true only if the biggest winners are the athletes themselves and only if the process of winning reinforces the values of the university. The key question today and into the future must be, what does this mean for the athletes themselves? Are they being treated fairly? Are they getting what they seek from athletic participation? If the mission of an athletic department is solely to grow more revenue so it can win more games, so it can grow more revenue, so it can win more . . . , then something is badly amiss.
For a president this distinction is critical to true success in college athletics. A program that supports the academic and athletic aspirations of athletes and does so in a manner consistent with the best traditions of human development is a remarkable asset for the students and the school alike. One that includes winning at the highest levels is even better. But a department or team that wins games but fails its athletes should be anathema to any university. Successful presidents need to know the difference.
These Times They Are A-Changing—And We Need to as Well
The precarious balance between conducting college sports as part of the human development of students and doing so simply for entertainment has not gotten easier for presidents. And it’s not going to anytime soon. The past decade brought with it remarkable change and uncertainty in college sports. But one thing is clear, the next decade will be even more tumultuous. The financial, political, legal, and public relations environment within which sports operates has evolved rapidly. Universities have been adjusting quickly, passing new rules and regulations within the NCAA structure, increasing support services for athletes, adding funds to improve athletes’ quality of life, and offering more flexibility for athletic participation. Presidents must be well versed on this changing landscape and work to find solutions to a new set of questions (Wood and Close 2021). It is insufficient for presidents of universities with high-profile sports programs to assume that their conference or the NCAA representatives will resolve all the uncertainty afoot. Both those organizations are membership organizations. They require active and thoughtful engagement by presidents. This is especially true right now.
Today the traditional principles of college sports are being debated. The most pressing question revolves around the core relationship between college athletes and their schools: Are they students playing other students, or are they professionals being paid to provide entertainment? This is an old debate as we all know. But today it is fueled by dynamics outside the authority of sports organizations. The future state of college sports, particularly high-revenue sports, may well be decided in a court room or under a capitol rotunda, not on campus. Presidents must recognize the external dynamics as well as internal ones shaping the direction of sports. Should they wish to influence that direction, they must be active, informed, and engaged.
The most apparent of these changes are being driven by money. The role of media contracts in college sports determines conference realignments, scheduling, and post-season play. The consolidation of high-revenue teams in a decreasing number of conferences has upended long-standing relationships and business models. Some schools have been sent scrambling to new homes while others have counted up new revenue. For presidents this means they cannot simply stand aside and watch. It is essential that a president and his or her athletic director are attentive to the dynamics of the media markets and anticipates to the extent possible where the markets are headed. Presidents do not need to know how to negotiate a media contract, but they better understand them. For big-time sports programs those contracts can determine much of what goes on in the lives of athletes: when they play, whom they play, how far they travel, who watches them, and what resources are available to support them are all included in those agreements. Others will do the negotiations, but presidents must have the final word, and they need to be well informed to do so.
The legal environment for college sports is also changing. Campuses, conferences, and the NCAA are now routinely embroiled in lawsuits and legal matters. Federal and state courts have both been engaged in a multiplicity of issues. Presidents need to stay abreast of these topics and have appropriate legal advice available. It is prudent to have routine discussions with general counsels about the legal risks and responsibilities associated with athletic programs. Similarly, presidents need to be aware of any state or federal regulatory requirements their athletic departments need to comply with. Many potentially dramatic changes are afoot (Murphy 2023). A lack of knowledge or understanding is not a defense. Presidents again need to turn to their colleagues, commissioners, and NCAA leadership to learn about the present environment and what is heading at them. It has never been more important to work closely with your athletic director. Taking time with your AD, commissioner, and NCAA reps to routinely scan the horizon is critical work right now.
Also, recently state legislatures have weighed in on college sports issues holding hearings, introducing and passing bills. Never before have state governments taken such active positions on athletics. Bills in California alone have shifted rules and the legal environment on Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) and may well lead to direct revenue sharing and employment status (Sanders and Coughlin 2023). Other states have for reasons of competition joined in quickly. All indications are that the current trend will continue. Presidents will need to be attentive to and engaged in these debates. Now, more than ever, presidents need to coordinate the work of their government relations offices with their athletic department. State legislators must be informed about the impact of legislative proposals on athletes and their programs. Given the high level of misunderstanding and mistrust about college athletics, presidents and their staffs need to proactively work with legislators on sports issues.
Finally, while media and public attention has always been focused on college sports, that attention has shifted. Higher education in general and sports in particular are no longer looked at with any deference. As unsettling as it may be, the public and the media do not accept on face value that university leaders have the best interests of athletes at heart. Quite the contrary in many cases. It must be proven to them that universities care more about their athletes than their bottom line. Presidents must now assume skepticism in audiences and make the case—backed up by the realities on the ground—that they are supporting their athletes appropriately. Communication efforts need to proactively inform and educate about the support given and success achieved on campus. But a president’s actions are dramatically more powerful than words. Whether it is by the allocation of resources, holding people accountable, or correcting past mistakes, president can send clear and convincing messages to their campuses and communities by what they do as well as say. Absent that, the public and the critics will assume otherwise.
Keeping Your Job and Feeling Good About It
For university presidents, athletics may be both the most frustrating and satisfying activity of all. Given the complexity of the modern presidency, that says a lot. The land mines surrounding athletics are abundant. Many presidents have unwittingly stepped on some—me included. The common reaction is to back away and leave sports to others. Some presidents have had long, successful careers without stepping into the training room or the locker room. But that would also be a shame. Some of the great moments on campus can come from hearing a volleyball player explain what playing the game means, from watching the passion of teams working together, or from seeing coaches console broken-hearted athletes after a bad loss. Athletics programs, of course, are not the only place this happens on campus. But it is certainly one of the most compelling.
Crowley, Joseph N. 2006. In the Arena: The NCAA’s First Century. Indianapolis: National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Murphy, Dan. 2023. “New California Bill Pushes for College Sports Revenue Sharing,” ESPN, January 19, 2023.
NCAA Report. 2022. “Crossing the Finish Line: Division I Graduation Rates on the Rise.” National Collegiate Athletic Association, Media Center, November 15, 2022. https://www.ncaa.org/news/2021/12/2/general-college-athletes-continue-to-graduate-at-record-highs.aspx.
Sanders, Summer, and Natalie Coughlin. 2023. “A California Bill Would Result in Detrimental Consequences for Female Athletes,” Sacramento Bee, June 19, 2023.
Wood, Douglas, and David Close. 2021. “Here Are Some of the Ways NCAA Athletes Are Embracing the New World of ‘NIL’ Deals,” CNN, July 4, 2021.