It’s time for March Madness and the NFL draft, placing college basketball and football squarely in the national spotlight once again. Both of us will join millions of other Americans in cheering for our favorite schools and players but, as observers who have been involved with intercollegiate sports for many years, we’re also concerned by some numbers that won’t show up on television screens with the statistics on rebounds or touchdowns.
For instance: Fewer than 2 percent of the young men who play intercollegiate basketball and football go on to play their sports professionally. And another: Those sports account for a relatively small percentage of those who compete in intercollegiate sports. The vast majority of student-athletes compete in Olympic sports such as swimming, volleyball or wrestling, or in sports that typically don’t produce revenue.
Largely because of football and basketball, however, the world of college athletics is in turmoil. Schools across the country are dealing with conference realignment, lawsuits, unionization efforts and the so-called “autonomy movement.” The latter is led by the most powerful football-playing conferences and institutions, which seek greater flexibility from complex rules that generally apply to all intercollegiate athletes at all schools.
The autonomy movement has produced some positive changes for student-athletes – such as scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance and a more generous approach to meals – but these changes are not free. Institutions that adopt them are likely to spend several million dollars more annually on their athletic programs.
Despite public misperceptions that Division I programs are awash in cash, the reality is these changes will further strain budgets that are already tight. When this happens, administrators will need to find new sources of revenue or face painful choices. In the worst case, this could mean cutting back on other sports.
Although football and basketball are the most visible faces of intercollegiate athletics, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that the development of professional athletes, or for that matter of Olympic athletes, is not the principal goal of collegiate athletics. For more than 125 years, participation in athletics has been part of the fabric of American higher education. Student-athletes at our schools “double major” in academics and athletics, as complementary elements of their maturation.
Indeed, one of the explicit missions of the institutions that make up the NCAA is the development
of leadership qualities among student-athletes, to help them prepare for their lives “after the game.” Once they graduate and their particular athletic skills – acing a serve, nailing a dismount – recede in importance, student-athletes benefit throughout their lives from the enduring traits of cooperation, diligence and leadership they developed during training and competition. They become better employees, parents and citizens.
The business community has long been aware of the valuable traits and skills former student-athletes bring to the workplace. In the latest of a long list of examples, a recent article on a prominent business website was titled, “Why your next employee should be a student athlete.” The author, Stephanie Vozza, observed that student-athletes are experienced at working in teams and achieving results, and also tend to be resilient, strong communicators and masters of time management. These skills cannot be attributed solely to college athletics, of course, but they are undeniably developed and polished by that experience.
We cannot allow this experience to be marginalized, reduced or eliminated for thousands of young people. As the autonomy movement directs ever more resources toward football and men’s basketball, we must be vigilant to ensure the cost of increased benefits does not imperil all that is good and positive about broad participation in college athletics.
Even as we cheer through March Madness and track the futures of our favorite college football players, we must not overlook or abandon the contribution of college athletics to the Olympic movement and, even more important, to the lives of generations of participants. Those contributions don’t get the spotlight but are what matter most.
Kevin White is vice president and director of athletics at Duke University. Bob Bowlsby is the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference.