Earlier this week a monumental decision was handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States in the NCAA v. Alston case.
This decision is -- potentially -- a return to the heart of the academic experience that students often forgo as they play their sports, including access to services that help them persist and earn degrees. The ruling should push campuses to address how colleges recruit, academically support and graduate athletes. In short, it’s time for institutions to live the rhetoric they use when describing the academic benefits of intercollegiate athletics for student athletes.
For my communications colleagues, now is an ideal time to schedule a meeting to discuss what this decision does and doesn’t mean for your marketing materials and language for intercollegiate athletics and for the campus as a whole. To better uphold the pledge made to athletes and their families about their value to our communities even after they hang up their uniforms, it also means that we need to broaden their experience. This includes breaking down silos and having athletics communications team up with the institution’s marketing communications office.
When arranging that meeting with senior administrators and athletics leaders, I am issuing a plea to include a very important person in your efforts: don’t forget to include your sports information director. They have contacts, context and connections that will prove invaluable to you as you wade through wording choices. Make sure you make the most of your SID’s expertise, because often mar comm leads don’t do so.
Sports information directors have roles well beyond knowledge of box scores and starting lineups. They understand the language and tone that best resonates with coaches and student athletes, and they have insight into a group of donors that may or may not be alumni yet have passion for the institution through their athletic affiliations. Our SIDs often have qualitative awareness of the image and reputation of our institutions among community supporters and sponsors in ways that central offices can only determine through research. Their political capital with internal and external audiences to athletics may be stronger than that held by the occupants of the central administration building to those same audiences. With newsrooms shrinking, we are seeing the lines between sports pages and front pages blur, with columnists writing content that surpasses traditional beats and instead drives clicks across multiple audiences. This includes sports columnists having increasing cachet with audiences that may not have read a traditional sports section.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note there are real consequences if we continue to operate separately. Not only do we run the risk of having athletics administrators, coaches, athletes and staff feel as if messaging geared toward them misses the mark, we decrease the chance that future messages create a sense of community and belonging alongside the general campus. I often hear athletics is an island to itself, and often the moat around that island was dug by the campus and reinforced by an us-versus-them message that pits academics against athletics. While athletes’ affinity is first to their athletic program, that is no different than students’ affinity to their academic unit or program of interest. SIDs can assist with language that preserves the lifelong relationship between a student athlete and their sport and also allows for a connection to their alma mater. It goes without saying that institutions run a tremendous risk by ignoring the power and potential of athletics media coverage.
Earlier this month I was fortunate to join Erik Christianson (NCAA), Joe Galbraith (Clemson) and Ira Thor (New Jersey City University) on a panel for the College Sports Information Directors of America’s annual conference. Our topic was “Communications and Public Affairs: Working With Institutional Leaders on Strategies and Message.” One of the questions submitted to our group stopped me and my fellow panelists in our tracks. The author noted that a recent exchange with their central marketing and communications office left them feeling “as if I had no value.” It was clear that this experience was not an anomaly among the group. If our fellow campus communicators don’t feel like they have value, how effective can our campus communications efforts be over all?
If there ever was a time for us to learn from and with our SIDs, it’s now. The Supreme Court decision is the first of many big announcements we expect that exist in that gray area that includes both the institution’s reputation and the operations of athletics. Next up are name, image and likeness decisions and/or state implementations, and we are mere weeks away from fall sports starting up again in our new COVID-19 reality. Use this moment -- and the Supreme Court decision -- to shore up relationships with your counterparts in athletics so that you are better prepared to meet the moment, uphold your institution’s reputation and better serve your student athletes. After all, we all have a lot of communications work ahead of us.
Teresa Valerio Parrot is principal of TVP Communications, a national public relations agency solely focused on higher education.