C. Rob Shorette II examines the recent efforts of some college football players attempt to unionize and points out the real issue that should be talked about.
Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. – Vince Lombardi
After closely following the initial public reactions to the recent unionization efforts of football players at Northwestern University and further engaging in related conversations with my colleagues and friends, I was convinced that I should write a piece critiquing the football players’ approach to achieving their desired outcomes.
However, my concerns about student-athlete unionization were sufficiently addressed by the resultant National Labor Relations Board ruling and the ensuing public intellectual debate. More importantly, though, after reflecting on what I believed was the real issue at hand, the right to unionize was not what emerged as the most pressing issue—it was culture.
Focusing specifically on the merits of the unionization of college student-athletes distracts us, as observers and actors, from addressing the deeper cultural issues that have led some student-athletes to organize against the systems and organizations supposedly dedicated to safeguarding their well-being and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life. And to be fair, the culture I reference in this article is mostly driven by the revenue-generating sports of men’s football and basketball.
Higher education administrators and student-athletes alike have inherited a culture that they did not create, but one in which they must operate. Having spent time participating in college athletics from various perspectives as a former student-athlete, academic mentor, university athletic council representative, and scholar with interests in intercollegiate athletics, I have been able to observe what I believe are some losing habits that have created an organizational culture plaguing college sports.
Losing Habit #1: Misplaced values. A quick examination of the NCAA statement referenced above reveals the first priority of the organization: student-athlete success on the playing field. It’s no surprise then that the resources, both financial and human, have been dedicated primarily to winning on the field. A Knight Commission report found that “median athletics’ spending per athlete at institutions in each major athletics conference ranges from 4 to nearly 11 times more than the median spending on education-related activities per student.” Citing the Knight Commission’s findings, David Welch Suggs, Jr., an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, notes that, “Institutions with Football Bowl Subdivision programs have seen subsidies of athletics rise by 53 percent at the median from 2005-2009…Meanwhile, spending on education and related functions rose only 22 percent.” One can only imagine what could be accomplished if a fraction of those resources were redirected toward educational initiatives off the field or if donors were more concerned about contributing to the academic excellence of the student-athletes rather than the multi-million dollar improvement to the high-definition screen in the stadium.
Losing Habit #2: Inattention to inequality. An aspect of intercollegiate athletics operations that should be celebrated is the fact that, much like at many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), access to higher education is provided for many students of color from low-income backgrounds—who are still severely underrepresented in most U.S. higher education institutions. The celebration often ends at admission, however, since graduation rates for these students still fall far below their white peers. Thanks to research centers that have taken up the mantle of educational equity in intercollegiate athletics, namely the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education and The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, scholars have produced an abundance of reports and infographics highlighting the disparities in graduation rates between white and black student-athletes at the most competitive and highly resourced athletic programs. Not to mention the fact that black coaches direct only 11 of the 126 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs despite the overrepresentation of black football players in most revenue-generating programs. Scholars are bringing attention to these disparities, but it is essential that the next step is taken by athletic administrators to invest the energy and resources into addressing those inequities.
Losing Habit #3: Cultural reproduction. Simone Weil captured the problem succinctly when she said, “Culture is an instrument wielded by teachers to manufacture teachers, who, in their turn, will manufacture still more teachers.” In the context of college sports, the dominant ideology is simply being transmitted through the behaviors and actions of current administrators and coaches who are “teaching” student-athletes (a.k.a. the pipeline for future administrators and coaches) about the values of college sports. Drawing simply from my own experiences at different institutions and through my different relationships with intercollegiate athletics programs, the root of this cultural reproduction seems to be the nepotism within athletic departments that favors former athletes who have, unfortunately, inherited values that are often in opposition to the mission of the higher education institutions in which they are situated.
As a player, I was often ridiculed by coaches and teammates for being a 4.0 student in college. As a mentor, I heard football players regurgitate the same dream of playing professionally while having to twist their arm to tell me anything about their academic aspirations. As both a player and higher education professional, I have too often seen academic support service personnel place disproportionate emphasis on maintaining competition eligibility as opposed to facilitating meaningful academic experiences that match the interests and goals of student-athletes. And as a scholar, I have experienced how difficult it is to gain access to the insular world of intercollegiate athletics to pursue scholarly research. To me, these personal experiences are all examples of products of the perpetuating losing culture of college sports.
So how do we change this culture? John Kotter suggests that it is quite easy, actually, and I tend to agree: “A powerful person at the top, or a large enough group from anywhere in the organization, decides the old ways are not working, figures out a change vision, starts acting differently, and enlists others to act differently. If the new actions produce better results, if the results are communicated and celebrated, and if they are not killed off by the old culture fighting its rear-guard action, new norms will form and new shared values will grow.”
Culture may seem like too overwhelming and abstract of a problem to address. Impenetrable. Unchangeable even. But I believe real change is achievable through the concrete actions and the courageous leadership of individuals addressing the losing habits that I have outlined above. Of course, the most effective and immediate results would come from executive leadership at the institutional level and within the NCAA making value-based decisions not driven by the bottom line. Just as important, though, are the persistent efforts of educators at all levels of institutional administration and across all functional areas to challenge the status quo and to find ways to establish new norms. Incrementalism—gradual social change undertaken in smaller degrees—is not always the preferred approach to those who are desirous of immediate substantial changes to malfunctioning systems; but collectively, incremental shifts have the potential to produce meaningful changes.
Admittedly, I am idealistic, but I refuse to lose my idealism and surrender to cynicism. I truly believe that we can achieve a major paradigm shift in college sports through the collective efforts of concerned and capable higher education administrators. Therefore, although I disagree with the idea of student-athletes being considered employees and bargaining for their welfare and do not believe the fight for unionization directly addresses more critical cultural issues, I do support their efforts to challenge a broken system in need of serious repair.
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Originally published as “The Losing Culture of College Sports: Thoughts from a Higher Education Idealist” on NASPA.org.
Photo: Flickr/Gianina Lindsey