DeCock: Time for trustees to take closer look at college athletics

ldecock@newsobserver.comOctober 9, 2012 

A report released Tuesday calling for university governors and trustees to take a more active role in the governance of college athletics should serve as a call to action for governing boards that have for too long failed to look closely enough at the inner workings of what has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

The report from the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, entitled “Trust, Accountability and Integrity: Board Responsibilities for College Athletics,” states forcefully that university governing boards are “ultimately accountable for athletics policy and oversight” and that they should “act decisively to uphold the integrity of the athletics program and its alignment with the academic mission of the institution.”

Or, translated to common language: Get your butts in gear and start paying attention, ladies and gentlemen. Your reputations are on the line.

Among those on the AGB’s athletics advisory committee, which oversaw the report, is University of North Carolina system president Tom Ross. Perhaps on no campus has this debate played out more poignantly than at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the pursuit of athletic excellence has spawned a series of academic scandals that continue to unfold.

Ross, who took over for Erskine Bowles in the middle of the NCAA’s investigation into the UNC football program, pointed to the system’s 2011 task force on athletics and academics – which addressed all 17 campuses, not just UNC-CH, in response – as the kind of undertaking the study encourages.

“So I think we were actually a little ahead of the curve here, and we have, in fact, made some changes that are reflected in that (task force) report and my memo to the chancellors, which lays out what they need to do in terms of their own structure on campuses and how the reporting changes going forward,” Ross told The N&O’s Jane Stancill on Tuesday.

The AGB report, released at a meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in Washington, D.C., also calls for boards to look more closely at the NCAA itself, which isn’t exempt from criticism: “Perhaps the NCAA, in its failure to clarify the role of board oversight of athletics, also fails to recognize where institutional authority ultimately lies.”

This has always been the biggest structural issue preventing the reform of college athletics and the NCAA. University presidents, with little if any input from trustees and governors, created and unleashed the NCAA on the world, and long ago ceded any control. This report makes clear that it’s not only imperative to reassert university control of athletics, it’s going to have to start at the top and it’s going to take some unpopular policies to do it.

“I think what it does ask is that boards on campuses understand athletic policies, that they understand their fiduciary responsibility includes those athletic policies, that they are ultimately responsible for upholding the integrity of those programs and for their alignment with academics on the campus,” Ross said.

In the end, it’s the boards of governors and trustees who bear responsibility for what happens on the campuses they oversee. And like corporate boards unable to check the misguided ambition of a power-mad CEO, they all too often have been willing to sit subservient to chancellors, presidents and athletic directors who have pursued success in athletics at any cost.

Reform – real reform – of college athletics isn’t going to come from within the athletic department. It isn’t going to come from the faculty, which knows it can’t win that battle on campus. It certainly isn’t going to come from the NCAA, which has as its stated goal the perpetuation of the NCAA model.

It’s going to have to start with the people who hold the real power, even if they have too often chosen not to exert it yet.

DeCock: luke.decock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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