The last 25 years of my life have been spent as an NCAA Division I men’s basketball coach. This rewarding career followed my time as an NCAA men’s basketball player for the Stanford Cardinal. Through these experiences, I have had a front row seat to the changing landscape of college sports.
Conference realignment has shaken college sports in the last month. Many wonder what this shake-up means for the future of college sports in a time featuring rapid change across the industry. Amidst this change, I turned to my experience to consider what college athletes can afford to lose, and what it must not.
What makes college athletics great is the fact that the competitors are students who compete as athletes. Call them what you want: “students,” “athletes” or “student-athletes.” Regardless of the title, college athletics is great, because the competitors are 18- to 24-year-olds who receive elite training to become the best they can be as an athlete and a student. A world of potential exists ahead of them, and in the university space they find themselves surrounded by leaders who can help them seize that potential.
With the threats that the NCAA faces, let’s start with what college sports should be willing to lose. Interestingly, some of these things may already have been lost.
For starters, college sports’ notion of “amateurism” can be lost.
We should be willing to pay players. We should be willing to have players transfer. If we accept these two factors, it gives us room to negotiate a future for college sports.
The money is there and how it is allocated can be figured out. Sure, coaches and administrators might make less income. However, just because executing this idea may be hard, doesn’t mean it is wrong. Oftentimes, when something is hard, that is the best sign that it is right. As coaches, we work to teach and demonstrate to the students we lead that there is no easy way through life, and that oftentimes, choosing the hard way leads to greater outcomes.
As schools moving from Conference A to Conference B is the leading news of the day, it may come as a surprise that the next thing we can lose is membership in our beloved conferences.
Yes, conferences spur rivalries, tradition and a sense of consistency. Given the shake-up that the world at-large has experienced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I understand the draw to and desire for consistency.
Any negotiation perspective that the NCAA, its member institutions or leaders take must be rooted in core values. The best in the sport industry–or any industry for that matter–are those whose decisions are guided by values. Core values are those that, even when the going gets tough, cannot be released. They are an organization’s “why” or reason for being. As with the amateurism point above, core values can adapt and evolve to meet the times and shifting nature of business. Just as we encourage the students we work with to lead with their “why,” when considering conference membership, any decision must be rooted in core values.
Travel being easy is not a core value. Players can travel an extra two- to three-hours for games. This may add expense line items to athletic departments’ budgets. But, again, the money is there to make it work, at least amongst the autonomy conferences.
The existence and continuation of traditional rivalries are not core values. Also, playing “like” academic institutions is not core to athletic competition. Line up and compete; we are not exchanging class notes. Oh, and the whole darn athletic department does not need to be in the same league as football. Sports can do what they need to fit their sport.
We can lose the highest exposure opportunities. We don’t need the biggest crowd, the biggest market, or whatever the next “biggest” thing is. We make fun of college students chasing Instagram “likes.” But here we are, doing just the same and chasing “eye-balls.” Let it go. Chase quality, not quantity. Let’s practice what we preach, and sure as hell not make decisions based on “linear” versus “non-linear.” Again, like any business, we need to figure out the money. But in doing so, we must hold true to our core values and but protect what makes college athletics special, which is…
The things that we CANNOT lose.
What makes college sports unique? What is our core value?
It is that college athletes are excellent in their field of play, all while managing the same–if not more difficult–course load as their college peers. On a night when a player shoots a game-winning three-point shot, he very well may have aced a test earlier in the day. A college soccer player scoring a game-winning goal may have made a discovery inside of a science lab that week. The magic of college sports, is that the people who compete in it show us the depth and breadth of what can be achieved when people live life without limits.
Athletes must continue attending school. Schools must continue setting their academic standards and the NCAA must continue enforcing minimum requirements while recognizing that education is not one-size-fits-all and universities know how to educate their students.
What needs to continue to be improved is integrating athletes with the general student body. As leaders, we must continue to push to create time, space and opportunity for college athletes to meaningfully engaging with their peers inside and out of the classroom. This includes, but is not limited to study abroad, internship and co-curricular opportunities. College athletes should not only gain the benefits of competing in NCAA athletics, but should have access and opportunity to actually engage the full college experience. In an age when many college-aged students are making six- or seven-figures annually from being social media influencers, paying college athletes will not ruin their ability to meaningfully engage with and integrate with the college campus community. In fact, it is likely they will continue being campus leaders and shepherd a new, digital influencer generation into the opportunity such technology presents.
We also cannot lose presidents and athletic directors holding coaches accountable–not just for wins, but everything. Coaches are educators and should be held accountable for supporting their respective university’s mission. With the scandals breaking frequently, we may have lost this. We must get it back.
We cannot lose the importance of winning. Striving to win and competition are key to making college athletics great. Individuals and teams are challenged to constantly improve and reach to be their best. The championship habits college athletes gain stick with them for a lifetime and can inspire millions through game broadcasts and media exposure. In a time in which a looming “comfort crisis” exists, the depiction of hard work being utilized to attain great results is more important than ever.
Coaches must continue to accept and lean into their role as educators. Being a teacher is perhaps the most noble profession there is. Next to parents, teachers are the ones building our future. Coaches are key to this in the college ecosystem. They take on the role of educator not just for the players on the team, but can and should serve as an example to the campus and community of a life lived right.
We’ve fallen into a trap where we believe the “magic” in college sports lies in withholding direct payment to college athletes or what conference we are aligned with. In actuality, the magic in college sports lies in helping individuals be the best they can be and building championship teams capable of inspiring millions.
If we remember where the magic lies, negotiate what can be negotiated and hold onto what cannot be lost, college athletics will remain the best reality TV show in the world worthy of its prominent place on American college campuses.
Eric Reveno is Oregon State University’s Associate Head Men’s Basketball Coach. Coach Reveno played Division I Men’s Basketball at Stanford University and has been a Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball coach at Stanford, the University of Portland, Georgia Tech before beginning his current role at Oregon State. You can follow him here.
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