The leadership quandary in college sports

September 25, 2013

(Darron Cummings/AP )

NCAA President Mark Emmert said last week that changes would not be coming to the amateur status of student athletes, despite growing momentum and tension over the issue of paying players on college sports teams.

Yet one thing will be changing, and in a "significant" way, Emmert said Monday—and that's the governance structure of the NCAA.

At a meeting of Division I faculty athletics representatives, Emmert said the NCAA's board "anticipates a lot of change" over the next year, and admitted it was needed. "I've said publicly on a number of occasions the only thing everybody agrees on with Division I governance is that it doesn't work."

It's unclear what kind of change Emmert envisions for the tradition-bound organization, which has been plagued with criticism in recent years over how it's meted out justice at different schools as well as how it's dealt with the growing debate over paying athletes. Speculation points to creating a big-school Bowl Division, essentially splitting the current Division I, and giving conferences more autonomy in rule making (such as on the issue of giving players additional funds to cover their costs).

But any governance changes should go beyond dividing big-time and small-name programs. The change we really need is for someone to better examine the role of those making the decisions overall.

In 1991, a blue-ribbon panel known as the Knight Commission recommended that university presidents, rather than a council of athletics administrators and faculty representatives, be in charge of college sports. As a result, the NCAA eventually restructured, creating an executive committee of 16 presidents who govern the entire NCAA (a concept known as "presidential control") and a board of directors made up of 18 presidents that govern the Division I schools.

As the Knight Commission explained in its 1991 report: "The burden of leadership falls on [presidents] for the conduct of the institution, whether in the classroom or on the playing field. The president cannot be a figurehead whose leadership applies elsewhere in the university but not in the athletics department."

The problem, however, is that more than 20 years later, this well-intentioned concept has created a system that, in the words of one university chancellor, assumes unrealistically that college presidents have the bandwidth and expertise to manage sports—thereby creating problems with accountability. Athletic directors complain they're left out of the process, uninvolved or barely consulted on decisions that affect their day-to-day jobs in a big way. And as Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis laid out in a column last December, putting the presidents in charge hasn't lessened cheating, dramatically improved academic integrity, or changed the economics of the sport.

If anything, it may have gotten worse. "These past 16 years," Davis writes, we've learned "that presidents can be just as feckless, hypocritical and corrupt as coaches and athletic directors." Coaches' salaries are still way out of whack. The conference realignment "feeding frenzy" of the last few years, led by university presidents, should erase any doubt that college sports are money-driven businesses.

"Sometimes," Davis writes, "strong leadership requires admitting you're in over your head."

One university leader has done just that. Back in April, outgoing UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, whose own tenure on the job was beset by sports-related scandals, admitted most university presidents are ill prepared to run big-time sports programs. Before departing for Washington University in St. Louis, Thorp was remarkably frank when he talked on a panel about how poorly the concept of "presidential control" is working. "We go to conference or NCAA meetings to discuss new rules and when we get home, our ADs tell us we were crazy to agree to these changes," he said. "And they’re usually right.”

There are two options, in Thorp's view: “Either we put the ADs back in charge, and hold them accountable when things don’t work … Or, let’s be honest, and tell [presidents] when we select them to run institutions that have big-time sports that athletics is the most important part of the job.” Thorp isn't trying to abdicate leadership responsibility, he said, but to recognize how "making the president or chancellor the only academic administrator accountable for athletics allows the rest [of the] administration to check out."

That the NCAA adopted a kind of buck-stops-here approach to leadership is understandable. The CEO of a major corporation, after all, is responsible for the decisions made in its most profitable division as well as the fallout when things go wrong there. And, fairly or unfairly, many blame the nation's president when things go wrong in far-flung federal agencies that have never come within a few hundred miles of his desk. So in the world of college sports, who--if not the university president—should be charged with keeping the focus on the broader education mission of the institution?

The answer, like all things, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Emmert has acknowledged that athletic directors and coaches have been shoved too far to the sidelines. Thorp himself said "I'm not talking about changing the reporting structure," only that if a problem happens in athletics, it should be athletics that is held accountable.

University presidents may remain ultimately responsible for what happens in their college athletics programs, but that doesn't mean they have to be on the hook for making all the major decisions and, in turn, fixing all the messes. Their job is to hire the best athletics leaders, trust those leaders' judgment about the programs they run, and then hold those people accountable when things go wrong.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

NCAA presidents failing the leadership test

Penn State’s Freeh report highlights leadership failings of university’s board of trustees

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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