Course Correction Needed in College Athletics

Course Correction Needed in College Athletics

It’s never business as usual when you don’t know what you’re selling. Are college sports a scholarship program, an entertainment industry or a muscled arm for institutional fundraising? Regardless of the product, sales have been booming for more than a century – and with that money comes the power of position and the temptress of corruption.

While college head coaches, especially in key sports, are kings on campus, it’s the athletic departments that build the thrones. Take, for example, the recent allegations against Wichita State head basketball coach Gregg Marshall that he punched one student-athlete and assaulted an assistant coach. While Marshall vehemently denied the charges, 10 players have requested transfers in the last two years, including seven after the 2019 season – almost double the national average. Supporters of Marshall posted a lengthy statement; notably, neither a single current or former student-athlete nor assistant coach was a signatory. Marshall resigned to the tune of $7.75 million over the course of six years.

At Texas Tech, women’s basketball head coach Marlene Stollings was fired for alleged mistreatment of her student-athletes, including grueling workouts with heart-rate monitoring, isolation and ridicule. There has been an alleged “culture of abuse” in the Texas Tech program since Stollings took over in April 2018. Like Wichita State, players fled what was described in exit interviews as a “toxic atmosphere;” 12 of 21 players left the program, seven of whom were recruited under Stollings. Again, we are expected to believe the student-athlete exodus did not suggest a deeper, more fundamental problem within the program. Incredulously, only six weeks later, softball head coach Adrian Gregory resigned under nearly identical circumstances.

Similar infractions were reported at the University of Missouri concerning tennis player Turner Yates where coaches pressured her to play through an ankle injury so severe that, after her freshman year, she had to have surgery. In fact, nine players have either transferred or quit the program since 2015 over the reign of the last two head coaches; the latter resigned. With student-athlete exit interviews a common and best practice across intercollegiate athletic programs, it is hard to believe that athletic senior administration was not aware of their head coaches’ behavior.

Athletic departments haven’t only struggled with addressing coaches’ behavior. In a 2019 incident at the University of Vermont, swimmer Kendall Ware claims she was raped by a UVM men’s basketball player and the school failed her after she filed a complaint. Ware said the school presented her with a choice between pursuing harsh punishment for the player or none at all. According to Ware, she was pressured as a student-athlete to resolve the complaint swiftly and silently – non-disclosure agreements and all.

USA Today recently reported allegations that several Louisiana State University officials had knowledge of sexual assault reports made against former football players and either ignored those complaints or denied the victims’ requests for protection. In the report, there are detailed assault allegations made against a former wide receiver by an LSU tennis player, including the claim that the victim’s tennis coach, Mike Sell, was informed, but did not report any formal complaint to the Title IX coordinator. When transparency is sacrificed for the good of an institution’s reputation, the cover-up, once exposed, is worse than the original sin.

While the recipe for success was already complex, pour in a global pandemic. Granted, no department was expected to make a fluid transition from pre-virus to the current situation. From pay cuts to program reductions to testing expenses, athletic departments have a responsibility to ensure that the games not played today don’t jeopardize the games played tomorrow. But the virus does highlight the echelons of teams – and players, for that matter. Those less profitable, fan-supported sports are on the chopping block. Swimming and diving, tennis and track and field have been especially vulnerable with 20 Division I tennis, 12 swimming and diving and eight track and field/cross country programs having been cut in the past eight months.

But could COVID also be a time-out, a time clock reset for athletic departments nationwide? When the entertainment market is pulled out from beneath you, program disparity is proven glaring and your student-athletes are considered vulnerable on myriad levels, the moment arrives to take inventory. A new normal is going to take effect and its cornerstones will be transparency and accountability.

America has always loved its college sports…and not begrudgingly. In addition to empowering 500,000 student-athletes participating in almost 20,000 sports programs at 1,100 institutions, college athletics create communities often unfettered by distance and time: A sense of belonging in this ever-increasing culture of isolation and division. Incidents of abuse are disturbing, but they are not prevalent. That’s why it is imperative for athletic departments to embrace opportunities to elevate their codes of conduct. And while it may seem cynical to look at college sports as a business, sustainability demands it. The safety of assets is the foundation to any successful enterprise – but, in this particular case, those assets are human and need to account for more than a dollar amount.

Russell C. Wright is the Managing Director of Collegiate Consulting, an independent, for-profit firm that advises academic institutions, of various levels and sizes, in feasibility and quantitative measures.

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