November 14, 2011
In the wake of the recent scandal that occurred at Penn State, you can’t help but contemplate exactly what has gone wrong in college athletics. While Penn State is clearly the pinnacle of these scandals, there are several other examples (e.g., Miami, Ohio State, UNC) that have unfolded during the past year. As each one is broken down on ESPN, we are reminded of a central theme that seems to exist within all “big time” athletic departments at the Division I level: winning (and profit maximization) being paramount above all other values. While this mind set is most prevalent in revenue producing sports such as men’s basketball and football, the “win at all costs” mentality is certainly visible in other non-revenue sports featured in athletic departments. The unfortunate thing is that this is an environment that has associated costs that far outweigh any of the potential benefits that come from winning championships. In the ultra competitive environment that has become Division I athletics, we are currently missing out on the opportunity to use sport as an educational medium to teach student-athletes life lessons that will allow them to make a real difference in the world.
What Does This Have to do With “Non-Revenue?”
With the threat of program eliminations facing non-revenue sports, I cannot see another way to maximize the chances of sustainability than to be a model program within your athletic department. While this can seem like a somewhat daunting task, the great thing is that this type of approach has the potential to get back to a foundation that emphasizes the true value of college athletics. In fact, based on previous research focusing on administrator’s non-revenue values (see Table below and “Marketing to True Top Segment” entry), it would seem that programs such as men’s wrestling are in an ideal position to reinforce values that embrace the true culture of the surrounding university. In the process, these programs can offer an alternative approach to the ones that are being featured on SportsCenter for all of the wrong reasons.
Because It’s the Right Way…
There is little doubt that a well-rounded approach is the best route for programs looking to improve their sustainability within athletic departments. However, there is another reason for running your program in a manner that will improve the conduct and academic performance of your student-athletes. Simply put, this is the right way to run your program. When these areas are seen as priorities for your staff, you will have a foundation to help student-athletes develop traits that will allow them to succeed well beyond your program. Interestingly, these are the type of lessons that directly align with the true value of college sport. They also happen to be ones that will only bring positive publicity to your program.
Build a Truly Brilliant Brand
If the previous section on “doing the right thing” was not convincing enough, then I would like to turn your attention to the benefits that come from building a brilliant brand. When you emphasize values outside of winning, you give your program a unique opportunity to be an integral part of the educational climate that exists in the surrounding university environment. Naturally, in addition to pleasing athletic administrators, these are values that will also be appealing to faculty, staff, and administrators on campus. In combination with solid athletic performance efforts, these areas of emphasis (e.g., academics, community service, conduct, relationship building) are ones that will allow you to build a brilliant brand that is appealing to a broad range of key stakeholders.
Make a Real, Lasting Difference
In a culture that overemphasizes fame (and winning), we sometimes lose track of the things that are truly most important in life. As an teacher, I try to remind myself each day that I have the unique opportunity to impact student’s lives when I interact with them. While I do fail at this, it is not something that I am willing to stop pursuing because I know what it at stake when I accept the status quo. This is the same opportunity that exists for coaches with the student-athletes in their program. When coaches are extremely strong leaders (and model the right values), they show student-athletes how to live their life the right way. While these lessons do exist in athletic competition, they go well beyond the “winning at all cost” mindset. Truly unique coaches will recognize this as they establish a culture that permeates success in all areas of life for student-athletes. The media is full of coaches who have recently failed to meet this standard of excellence. Be sure that you don’t let this happen to you. There is far too much at stake.
“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour” (Winston Churchill)