We Don't Need College Sports Unions, We Need Enlightened Leadership

Apr 11 2014, 1:52pm CDT | by

We Don't Need College Sports Unions, We Need Enlightened Leadership
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Sports have historically been a wonderful source of leadership lessons. They’ve even occasionally led the way on social issues, like racial integration – from Jackie Robinson’s baseball breakthrough to the South African rugby team’s historic world-cup victory (both celebrated in recent films) to Texas Western’s improbable 1966 NCAA basketball championship.

This is surely part of the reason that business people tend to be sports fans – we look to sports for inspiration as much as for entertainment. We appreciate that, just as with quarterly earnings reports, there is a clarity about who’s winning and losing. And we love the surprise opportunities for Cinderella stories —  now an annual occurrence in March Madness.

Unfortunately sports can also be pretty uninspiring sometimes. Take the recent news that Northwestern University student-athletes want to unionize. They’re led by former football players who say the university rakes in cash – from ticket sales, TV revenue, sponsorships, etc. – while the players, all full-time students, spend 40 hours a week (at least) training, practicing and playing football. Some don’t graduate. Others suffer injuries that can nag them for life.

The union drive – and the NLRB’s approval of the players’ petition to be classified as university employees – is part of a growing movement to rectify the inequity created by all the money generated by big-time college sports. A recent report showed that while Texas A&M spent about $120,000 on Heisman-Trophy winner Johnny Manziel’s education, it likely reaped hundreds of millions in donations, and as much as $37 million worth of media exposure. And this week, just a day after leading his team to the national-championship game, University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari released a book not only calling for players to receive stipends of up to $5,000 a year, but comparing today’s NCAA to the Soviet Union in its final years. “[Y]ou could see it crumbling,” Calipari writes, “and it was just a matter of time before it either changed or ceased to exist.”

But what’s even more outrageous is that the “education” the athletes are supposedly getting turns out, far too often, to be worthless. A recent story by journalist Paul M. Barrett focused on an institutional failure to graduate, or even educate, many student athletes at the University of North Carolina. They are not alone.

When you have an esteemed educational institution abandoning all of its core principles in the name of winning games, something is seriously wrong. But to fix it, we don’t need unions. We need leadership.

This is not dissimilar to when a business, in pursuit of short-term profit or suffering from poor leadership, loses focus on its primary goals. There, it’s up to the CEO to refocus his entire team on the company’s mission. Here, university presidents have to step up and attack the problem – before somebody (Northwestern football players, for instance) does it for them or to them. Their primary mission is to educate and they should act like it. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are three simple ideas for college leaders, and the NCAA that serves them:

  1. Offer all full-time athletes an extra two years to complete their degrees – on full scholarship. They were promised an education and deserve a fair chance to get it. If colleges don’t want to pay for an extra two years, they will make sure their athletes get a quality education in four years. This reminds me of how powerful a simple incentive proved in healthcare. Told by the federal government that they would have to pay for readmissions that occurred within 30 days of a surgery — in essence a 30-day money back guarantee — hospitals took dramatic steps, improved patient care, and the readmission rate plummeted. All due to a simple guarantee: deliver what you promised.
  2. Allow academic advisors – not coaches – to hold players out of games when they fall behind in school. This is not about grades, it’s about teaching student-athletes what is important and getting them the education we know is so valuable.
  3. Make sure your athletic director’s bonus is tied to on-field success and graduation rates equally.  If we do this for all ADs and maybe even coaches, we raise the bar for everyone. And why not use the Ivy League as a benchmark for target graduation rates.

Universities could take the easy way out by refusing to admit students with poor grades or test scores.  But that’s simply not equitable because sports still serve as a way out and up for so many underprivileged kids. The responsible solution for a top-notch educational institution is to seek out the best athletes and turn them into quality students, not the reverse.

Here’s another group that needs to show some leadership: alumni. Most of us take great pride in following our alma maters’ athletics. Let’s ensure that pride is real and let our college presidents know that we value graduation rates as highly as won-loss records. Then we’ll have winning programs we can be proud of — and student-athletes who can be successful whatever path they choose.


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