Scholars and Sports

NCAA's inaugural faculty conference on college sports issues considers academic research, campus culture -- and the association's role as event sponsor.
January 11, 2008

After a false start more than a year ago, the inaugural National Collegiate Athletic Association-sponsored scholarly colloquium opened Thursday with a medley of presentations from professors who addressed the dearth of academic research on college sports and the often tenuous relationship between academics and athletics.

The colloquium, “College Sports: A Legitimate Focus for Scholarly Inquiry?,” is running in conjunction with this weekend’s NCAA annual convention in Nashville. And given the mixture of sports scholars, association officials, college administrators and athletics department representatives in attendance, it’s logical to assume that the question of academic legitimacy was meant to be rhetorical.

Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, who embraced an unfamiliar role as audience participant, gave his answer in the opening minutes of the event. “From a scholarly point of view," he said, "this type of research [on collegiate athletics] is underappreciated.”

Brand said the NCAA has for years tried to encourage scholarly work to inform academic reform policy decisions relating to college sports. The colloquium was developed as a way to, as the association puts it, “elevate cross-disciplinary faculty oversight of college sports, as well as address the current void in research activity devoted to sports in the context of higher education."

Much of the session, devoted to issues such as faculty involvement (or lack thereof) in athletics oversight and the tax-exempt status of college sports programs, felt similar to previously held athletics summits. But there was also a sense of unfamiliarity: How would an event go that's sponsored by the NCAA but not run by the association? Would speakers soft-pedal criticism of college sports knowing that Brand and Co. were taking notes?

R. Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science at Pennsylvania State University and an expert on the philosophy of sport, said he didn't sense that speakers were holding anything back. Brand, a philosopher himself, recruited Kretchmar to chair the colloquium advisory board and consulted with him on other names to consider for the initiative. Kretchmar identified other sports scholars to serve on the independent board. That group identified four speakers to present their academic papers, which along with responses from selected speakers are scheduled to appear in a new journal this spring.

Steve Walk, a professor of sport sociology at California State University at Fullerton and a former president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, said it was satisfying to see NCAA staff listening to commentary from some of the top sports scholars who previously haven't had the stage.

"How can I be against that?" said Walk, who was among the academics who last year questioned whether the NCAA was the appropriate group to host a no-holds-barred college sports issues meeting. "People aren't pulling punches. There's a bit of selecting going on with the speakers, but they've chosen well."

Questions About Oversight

Still, some were critical of the board's decision to select presenters rather than open it up to submissions. Jay Coakley, a presenter and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, likened the situation to that of the NCAA's Bowl Championship Series in football. In that process, a select group of voters (and computers) chooses who it thinks should play for the sport's top prizes -- with the alternative being a more egalitarian playoff system in which teams would earn their way in based on competition.

Several session attendees pointed out notable omissions from the program, including representatives from established groups that are often critical of the NCAA's work. Coakley said he did see some attempt by the board to find a diversity of speakers.

“I owe the NCAA nothing, and I’ve been critical in the past,” he said. “So the fact that I was invited is encouraging. They could have picked a safer choice.”

And, as Kretchmar noted during the event: "The mics are open to the audience; people are using them."

Leaving open the submission process was the intent for the original colloquium scheduled for early 2007. But Brand canceled that event in late 2006, saying that the quality of papers turned in had been inadequate. The announcement concerned some who had submitted papers and prompted speculation that NCAA officials had spiked the conference because it found too many of the papers overly critical of college sports.

Brand dismissed that notion, saying the decision was based on wanting to have enough scholarly material to support a full-blown conference.

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, said he still isn't satisfied with that response. And Coakley still has questions.

"We had to trust Myles Brand's conclusion -- that there wasn't enough good stuff," Coakley said. “I didn’t know anyone who looked at the papers. What was wrong with them? All of that remains out there."

As is the broader concern. Coakley said he'd like a better definition from those behind the colloquium and journal of what counts as "quality, objective research." For instance, he doesn't consider research based on the premise that sport builds character to be either non-biased nor non-ideological.

"Is someone who does research that identifies the need for institutional change and presents it in an independent way in the clear?" he asked. "If we don't answer that question, faculty will assume that this journal will simply be another communication arm of the NCAA."

Southall raised similar concerns. "Is the NCAA, as a trade association, the proper entity to be sponsoring an unbiased review?" (He said he hadn't yet formulated a conclusion.)

Brand has said that such criticism is unwarranted. The NCAA decided to sponsor the academic conference, he said in 2006, because it wanted to involve faculty members 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,” Brand said at the time he shut down the first colloquium. “We thought it would be helpful if the NCAA would be supportive of that effort.”

Kretchmar acknowledged that the questions about the NCAA's involvement are worth asking. He said he pushed for tenured faculty and longtime sports scholars to speak at the conference and serve on the board who would not be seen as easily influenced by outsiders.

“Is it possible that research goes in a direction that’s unacceptable because it’s so disagreeable? Sure," he added. "Some of the research findings might make the NCAA uncomfortable. I figured these tensions would be there.”

Increasing Research on Sports

Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor and graduate chair of the Department of Sport Management and Media at Ithaca College, said while she was pleased with the high level of conversation at the colloquium, she was having a hard time seeing the bigger picture.

“If the intention is to set a research agenda, where are the existing sports researchers?,” she said, pointing to the fact that of 240 people who signed up for the conference, only 30 percent were faculty athletic representatives, some of whom likely aren't involved in research involving athletics. "The [conference title] question is misleading, because quality research has gone on for more than 100 years."

Coakley presented material showing that of existing research on college sports, 60 percent focuses on organizational issues (graduation rates, gender equity, alumni giving), 15 to 20 percent on behavioral content (hazing or drug use, for instance) and 15 percent on athletes' experiences. The majority of the research covers so-called "revenue sports" in the NCAA's top competitive level. Division II and III have seldom been studied, his data show.

Several issues factor into the lack of academic research on college sports, Coakley said. Coaches have the power to turn down researchers who might assemble data that could embarrass a program. Many faculty see college sports as auxiliary, and research in the field often comes with little prestige.

Added Jack Evans, executive director of Carolina North, a new research campus being planned at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "Professors who like college sports aren’t as likely to want to see critical analysis. And the bottom line is people who would be the researchers have other opportunities that entail less risk and more reward."

And then there's the NCAA, which Coakley said can be an "unintended inhibitor" to the research. The association, he said, can compile data far more easily than can individual professors, but it has an incentive to look at information that puts college sports in a positive light. (He said he didn't question the credibility of the NCAA's data staff.)

Brand said the NCAA can be helpful to researchers, but that the larger issue is that many institutions still view research on intercollegiate athletics as inferior to other inquiries.

"Departments find disparaging athletics as a common cause they can rally around," he said.

Coakley said more research grants and meetings among faculty, coaches and NCAA representatives to devise "research priority lists" could help provide incentives for research.

Kretchmar said he hopes faculty will take a chance by submitting work in a new journal that covers topics across disciplines. And he would like to see both the presenter and journal submission processes open next year.


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