NCAA Sidelines a Scholarly Conference

November 22, 2006

Early this year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association quietly announced that it would hold a scholarly conference on college sports in January, in conjunction with the group's centennial. Now, even more quietly, the association has scuttled the event, leaving several scholars who had been planning to participate in it perplexed. The lack of a formal explanation for the postponement, which has not been formally announced, has left them somewhat suspicious, too, given the environment that characterizes the relationship between many faculty members and big-time college sports.

"Was it that they didn't like the stuff they were receiving -- was it too critical of the NCAA?" wondered Richard Southall, an assistant professor of health and sport science at the University of Memphis who is active in the Drake Group, a consortium of faculty members who are critical of big-time college sports.

The association's president, Myles Brand, insists that the conspiracy theorists are off-base. The reason for the postponement was simple, he says: The papers received "were not of the quality one would expect for a scholarly conference, or at least there weren't enough of them to put on a conference." Brand said that the NCAA staff members and others who had been involved in planning the original meeting were not familiar enough with higher education to fully understand what an academic conference was all about, and that when Brand himself got involved and saw the nature of the abstracts that had been submitted, he realized the conference was ill-fated.

"Rather than put on a mediocre conference, and get off to a bad start," Brand said, the association decided to start from scratch. It has lined up a group of what he called "leading academicians" to meet at the NCAA's annual convention in early January to plan a new conference, scheduled for January 2008.

Brand said it was premature to identify who the scholars are, but one of them, R. Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science at Pennsylvania State University and an expert on the philosophy of sport, said the association "literally went after the top names in sports literature, sport management, the physiology of sport, sport law.... We're looking to make the conference timely, thematic, interesting, provocative," Kretchmar said.

Kretchmar was among those who submitted a paper -- on the "futility of legislating one's way to morality in college sports" -- for the conference the first time around. Kretchmar, who is the faculty athletics representative at Penn State, said that had he not been active in NCAA affairs, he "would not have responded to the initial invitation," because like other scholars, he must pick and choose which scholarly meetings he wants to take the time and energy to participate in.

"There's only so much money and so much time, and a lot of researchers are going to choose to present at conferences that bring you some kind of high level academic perk," Kretchmar said. "The NCAA would not be seen as a place where you'd get those better points, and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that that's why they had relatively few responses from bona fide scholars."

Steve Walk, who is an associate professor of sport sociology at California State University at Fullerton, is on the board of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and serves on the boards of both the Sociology of Sport Journal and Sociological Perspectives. Walk, who is Fullerton's faculty representative to the NCAA, said he too is not surprised that relatively few scholars chose to participate in the NCAA meeting -- but for a different reason.

"This is a bit of an overdrawn analogy, but it's a little like Halliburton sponsoring a conference on government waste," Walk said, referring to the mammoth energy company. "It's really going to be difficult to trust the basic premise of an NCAA conference on the virtues of intercollegiate athletics, and I think the lack of enthusiasm was because people were sniffing out a bit of hypocrisy here and just avoiding it."

Brand says such criticism is ill-informed. The NCAA decided to sponsor the academic conference, he said, because it wanted to involve faculty members not in role they sometimes play on their campuses -- helping to oversee and govern the sports programs -- but in their primary role as scholars. "The idea was that there's another role for faculty in intercollegiate athletics that we haven't taken up at the NCAA, and that's to treat intercollegiate athletics as the subject matter for research," said Brand, a philosopher who was president of Indiana University before taking the reins at the NCAA. "We thought it would be helpful if the NCAA would be supportive of that effort."

The NCAA's mistake, Brand acknowledges now, was putting responsibility for the conference in the hands of "really nice people" on the NCAA staff -- "non-academicians" -- who "really didn't understand" how to stage a scholarly conference. "It was not taken seriously by scholars in the field," he said. "Some of the best bypassed it, because it wasn't presented in the right way."

Several scholars who submitted papers to the original conference said that they had wrestled with the issues Walk raised, about whether the NCAA could put on a legitimate scholarly conference about college sports. But they said they had ultimately decided that the association deserved the benefit of the doubt, and that "a scholarly exchange right in the heart of the NCAA decision making process" was worth encouraging, as one put it.

"I thought, Why not go down there and share my data in an open forum -- that's what we're supposed to do as scholars," said Southall of Memphis. Although NCAA officials declined to characterize the nature of the papers the association did receive, it is clear that some if not most of the professors who submitted papers are members of the Drake Group or otherwise critics of college sports, and at least some of their papers were of the sort that the Drake Group fields at its own annual conference,  which takes place each year in the same city (but certainly not the same venue) as the NCAA's Final Four. (Among the titles of papers prepared for submission at last year's Drake conference, in Indianapolis, were "Management’s Role in Controlling Unethical and Illegal Behavior in Sport Organizations," "One Hundred Fifty-Four Years of Intercollegiate Sports and the Reforms that Never Happened," and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: NCAA Recruiting Trips.")

Brand would not say whether papers like that dominated the submissions to the NCAA event. But when he looked at the papers -- "and having been in the academy for 40 years, I think I can tell the difference between a good paper and something that's not high quality," Brand said -- he saw too many of the latter and too few of the former, he said.

That's when the association decided to start from scratch, and to convene "the leading scholars in their fields, from sociology, history, literature, economics, business," to plan the meeting and, ultimately, referee the papers. Brand says he is confident that the 2008 conference will produce important work that measures up to material published in scholarly journals.

Walk, of Cal State-Fullerton, isn't so sure. "I think it will be very difficult for him to assemble a group, certainly of sociologists, to participate in this anytime soon."

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