Communications consultants say athletics controversies are more difficult to manage
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Given E. Gordon Gee’s far-reaching career and national profile, it was reasonable to expect that his retirement announcement Wednesday would make headlines not just in Ohio – where he twice served as president of Ohio State University – but also in places like Colorado, Rhode Island and Tennessee, where he also ran institutions.
University presidents don’t often find themselves in the sports pages. But Gee ended up there last month after a recording of a December university athletics council meeting leaked to the Associated Press. In the recording, Gee said that the University of Notre Dame was not invited to join the Big 10 Conference because priests are not good partners and “those damned Catholics” can’t be trusted. His comments also hit on the academic quality of the Southeastern Conference and the University of Louisville.
While none of the comments touched directly on on-field performance – and while the controversial statements focused primarily on issues such as religion and academic quality – the references to conference realignment and athletics conferences were enough to attract the notice of a sea of sports reporters from across the country.
“Is this really an athletic controversy, if that’s what we’re calling it? In Gee’s case, the answer is probably no, but in some ways the answer is also yes,” said John Burness, who served as senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University from 1991 to 2007 and now teaches about higher education communications. “If he said this about a political science department, it just wouldn’t be the same news.”
In interviews last week, Gee, who is 69 and in the sixth year of his current presidency, denied that the current controversy played a role in his decision to retire, only saying that the turbulence of the presidency brought about a focused discussion with his family about his future. But the timing of the announcement, the unusually short window between the announcement and when Gee will step down, and other revelations about Gee’s relationship with the university’s governing board at least give the impression that the public response to the comments played a role in his decision.
Gee joins a list of other university presidents who have come under intense scrutiny over controversies related to intercollegiate athletics. That list includes the presidents of Pennsylvania State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rutgers University.
The fact that Gee, Penn State President Graham Spanier and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp all left their jobs amid athletic controversies -- and that Gee had survived numerous impolitic statements in the past -- raises the question about whether administrators are less likely to keep their jobs amid athletic controversies than other types of troubles. While there has been significant turnover in public university leadership in the past few years for a number of reasons, athletics controversies are starting to stand out as particularly challenging.
“The fact is, once these stories break, they tend to become all-consuming,” Burness said.
Whether Gee’s comments or the other recent controversies would have had the same profile if they did not touch on athletics is impossible to say. One consultant said the fact that the comments touched on religion and insulted students -- two areas presidents should stay away from -- was likely to attract negative attention anyway.
But multiple higher education communications specialists and university administrators said that controversies that touch on big-time athletics are fundamentally different from most other kinds of issues university administrators can encounter. Issues that involve athletics attract a legion of sports reporters, which often brings the controversy to a wider and less-informed audience than other types of scandals reach. Such controversies also hit on one of the largest revenue and expenditure centers in the institution. That level of attention can consume administrators’ time.
“When athletics is part of the front porch of your university, then when issues break and go south they tend to take on a much higher level of attention,” Burness said.
Athletics scandals also tend to be more difficult to manage, administrators say, since they occur in an area of the institution that is often structurally different from other areas, demanding presidential involvement at lower levels on issues where presidents typically don’t have managerial expertise.
While most communications officials interviewed for this story agreed that sports issues differ from other types of issues, some experts said they should nonetheless be managed the same way.
Each type of controversy requires presidents to speak to certain types of stakeholders, said Teresa Valerio Parrot, a crisis communications consultant. Whether they are boosters or faculty or students or all three, managing a controversy requires consistency from its leadership. When presidents break from that consistency, Parrot said, is when they get in trouble. And that can happen in athletics, academics or student life, she said.
"University presidents are held to a higher standard. They're supposed to be tolerant and stand for tolerance and diversity and the ideals that higher education holds out so prominently," said Alan Stone, a former communications executive at Harvard and Columbia Universities. "Especially around commencement season when those values are held up, presidents become so vulnerable when they trespass those ideals."
The first aspect of sports controversies that communications officials point to as differentiating them from other types of controversies is that they are simply higher-profile.
Unlike most higher education news, where the regular readership is specialized and in many cases relatively contained, sports play a dominant role in American culture. They have their own section of the newspaper, multiple television channels and countless websites. For many people, athletics serve as a window into higher education (and specific colleges and universities). People who have no interest in academic papers, medical breakthroughs or outstanding faculty members and students still pay attention to intercollegiate athletics.
That profile means more reporters, and more reporters mean more people looking for and competing for new angles and breaks in the same story. At varying times in the athletics and academics controversies surrounding UNC-Chapel Hill, major breaks in the story came from reporters from the local newspaper and television stations, the college newspaper, national media and sports media. One break – the revelation of a former athlete’s transcript – came from a fan site for North Carolina State University athletics.
The Penn State child sex abuse case wasn't really about sports at all, but many of the reporting breakthroughs came from sports reporters.
“You’ve got a whole world that writes about sports that wouldn’t have cared about it if it was a cheating scandal in a French class,” said Stone. “When the story gets on radio talk shows, or the blogs that surround sports picks it up too, that may add to the drumbeat.”
Administrators struggled to name comparably high-profile scandals in higher education that did not involve athletics. Unlike the Penn State and UNC controversies, which continue to attract news media attention and investigations, the governance controversy a year ago at the University of Virginia seems to have fallen from national consciousness. The cheating scandal at Harvard that attracted national media attention last fall also left the news quickly.
When administrators could think of stories that attracted prolonged national attention, they often touched on university hospitals, such as a 2003 medical malpractice controversy at Duke University Hospital that Burness managed. Burness noted that hospitals are another component of large institutions that can serve as a "front porch" to many in the community. Hospitals are also large revenue and expense centers like athletics.
Out of Practice
The other major aspect of sports controversies that distinguishes them from other issues is that institutional leaders are often unprepared to manage them. Presidents, most of who come up through the faculty and academic administration, often have little interaction with athletics before assuming the presidency.
“Presidents are being asked to manage something fundamentally different than the rest of the enterprise, and some of these missteps are a result of that,” Stone said.
Stone said the fact that athletics are viewed as a revenue maker, their large following, the structure of competition and travel, and the fact that those who run such departments don’t come up through the ranks with many other university administrators make them more difficult to manage for individuals who do come up through the ranks.
“It’s an enterprise within the large enterprise that isn’t really consistent with the rest of the university in so many ways,” Stone said.
Gee had more experience with athletics issues than most presidents, having overseen multiple universities with large athletics departments and worked closely with those departments. He even oversaw the restructuring of the athletics department at Vanderbilt University. But other presidents point to him as an exception.
Over the past few decades, motivated by a 1991 report by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, presidents have gotten more involved in athletic decision-making. Because of that push, because sports are so high-profile, and because presidents are seen as the face of institutions, presidents often get involved in athletics issues before they would in other areas of the institution.
Presidents are involved in the decision to hire and fire coaches, who are separated by at least one administrative level from them. Athletics searches – often done in a matter of weeks or months – happen on a much more expedited timetable than do searches for other university administrators, which can often take about a year.
Those differences can present a challenge to presidents’ managerial styles. “It’s not really the type of controversy, but the leadership approach that the president takes that determines whether a president survives,” said Parrot. “Is he or she making the decisions appropriate for what a president should be doing?”
“Where decision-making normally occurs, you have to ensure that that’s where it’s kept,” Parrot said. “In any other unit, would the president be involved at a level that’s many levels removed?" Members of a president's cabinet should be allowed to live and die by their decisions, and presidents should hold them accountable, Parrot said. When presidents get involved in lower-level administrative decisions, the only person left to hold accountable is the president.
Holden Thorp, the departing chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill whose decision earlier this year to step down was closely tied to athletics and academic controversies, has become outspoken about the need to get university presidents out of the day-to-day operations of athletics departments, inspiring high-profile columnists to weigh in on the subject.
Thorp has said his time over the past three years have been dominated by an unfolding series of scandals related to the university’s athletics department.
"Either we put the ADs back in charge and hold them accountable if things don't work," Thorp said at a UNC panel on the topic in April, "... or let's be honest and tell everyone when we select them to run institutions that run big-time sports that athletics is the most important part of their job."