Expanding the Concept of “Best” In College Sports


Storyline: Being “the best” in college sports is reserved for a select set of iconic brands, like Alabama in football and UConn in women’s basketball. Left out of the equation is socially responsible athletic administration. What’s that? Here’s what it means and why it’s important.   

I’m sure this has happened to you at some point in your life. The psychologists call it perceptual set, which is the tendency to start paying attention to things that you hadn’t noticed before.


Courtesy: quoteaddicts.com

Say you’re interested in buying a new car, a hybrid vehicle. All of a sudden you start noticing hybrid cars on the road. That’s because your perception is set in that direction. They’ve always been there, but now you really notice them.

Something like that happened to me a few years ago. I settled down one winter evening to watch college basketball games. While channel-flipping I noticed something about the games: most players on the floor—sometimes all of them at the same time—were African American, but every head coach in those games, save one, was White.

Nothing new or unusual was happening. I just started noticing it. When I looked up the numbers I learned that about 60% of players in Division 1 men’s basketball players are Black, while about 80% of Division 1 men’s basketball coaches are White. 90% of head coaches are White in major college football, while the majority of players are not. 90% of athletic directors at major schools are White, as are commissioners of major conferences.

Courtesy: sps.nyu.edu

Courtesy: sps.nyu.edu

Starting that night I became interested in something I now call social responsibility in sports. Social responsibility in sports is about the sport-society intersection—what we value and stand for, and how those beliefs apply in sports administration, like equity in athletic hiring.

I know it’s myopic to single out colleges when it comes to social responsibility in sports. It’s a matter that cuts across all sports. For example, the U.S. women’s soccer team recently filed a wage discrimination suit against U.S. Soccer. But it seems to me that higher education has a special obligation to act in socially responsible ways.

For years I assumed that higher education—an institution dedicated to serving the public good—valued social responsibility. That’s simply not the case, at least when it comes to revenue-generating athletics. Higher education pays loads of attention to winning, branding, and finances. Social responsibility is often relegated to the undercard.

Social responsibility speaks to issues that we’re not likely to think about–or even connect–to sports. Take, for example, the issue of managing a school’s carbon footprint when designing teams’ travel schedules. What is the environmental cost of making that trip to the other coast vis-à-vis playing a nearby school?

That’s not to say that college sports is socially irresponsible. There are good examples of socially responsible administration and significant ones, too. Consider the policy adopted recently by The Ivy League to ban tackling during in-season football practices. It’s a way to manage cognitive issues that can accompany repeated hits to the head. And the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Board recently passed an anti-discrimination measure to evaluate bids for hosting NCAA sporting events.

Courtesy: Loyola. edu

Christine Brennan (photo, Loyola. edu)

How did I become more aware of social issues in sports? Without question, it was through investigative journalism. Print journalists write extensively on social issues in sports. Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, Joe Nocera of The New York Times, and Christine Brennan of USA Today are three examples. ESPN’s daily television program, “Outside the Lines,” does a masterful job covering social issues across sports. And Dave Zirin of The Nation specializes in analyzing social issues from a Progressive perspective. Sports journalist Rian Watts says this kind of work puts sports in a social context.

But while some sports fans welcome this kind of treatment, others don’t. Why? It detracts from covering “the important stuff”—stories about teams, players, and games. And while fans take pride when schools are praised for being socially responsible, most fans don’t want their schools to be viewed negatively.

So I was surprised a month or so ago when a colleague sent me a report. The study includes distressing numbers about a school with which we share an affiliation. The study, conducted by The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, reported that only 33% of African American football and men’s basketball players at our school graduated after 6 years. That compares to an over 75% graduation rate for the rest of campus.

Courtesy: espn.go.com

Courtesy: espn.go.com

That finding was included in a report the Center published on graduation rates at top-tier programs in college sports—schools in the so-called “Power 5 Conferences,” the Atlantic Coast, Pacific 12, Big Ten, Southeastern, and Big 12 conferences. The Center found that about 50% of black male athletes playing football and men’s basketball graduated within 6 years. That compares to a 68% graduation rate for all athletes and 75% for all undergraduates.

How sad, I thought, that graduation rates would be so poor at schools that fans consider to be the best in college sports. But if these schools are the best, then just what does ‘best’ mean? 

The prevailing yardstick, of course, is winning—winning championships, especially. And, to win, schools have to hire and retain first-rate coaches, recruit outstanding athletes, have modern facilities, and raise revenue to pay for it all. Time and attention goes to things like those. What about social responsibility? The answer is uneven.

Courtesy: thestudentathletedigest.com

Courtesy: thestudentathletedigest.com

I see a glimmer of change, though – at least on the fan side. A handful of acquaintances tell me they cheer for college teams, but it’s not without pangs of guilt. Why? Two areas stand out in what they tell me: uneasiness regarding ‘big money’ in college sports; and concern about health issues caused by head trauma.

A few fans are taking action, too. Some have expressed concerns on social media sites, such as Facebook. Others have lodged concerns with university and athletic administrators. One colleague wrote a Letter to the Editor. Two colleagues wrote articles. One colleague wrote about what she called “her love/hate relationship with college sports” and another colleaguea former athlete at a major sports university–wrote about how her beliefs have changed from the time she was an undergraduate (when she wrote an article in the school newspaper) to today (when she expressed herself as a faculty member).

What about university administrators and trustees? The picture is less hopeful. That’s because athletic success—not social responsibility—dominates institutional agendas. The reason is understandable. Research shows that success on fields of play improves a school’s profile and enhances its brand. It can attract more and better students, invite more donor dollars, and generate more press coverage. So the prevailing objective is building bigger and better athletic programs.

From left, U. of Idaho coach, president, and AD (idahostatesman.com)

From left, U. of Idaho coach, president, and AD (idahostatesman.com)

And trouble looms when university executives try to rein in college sports. Consider the case of Alabama-Birmingham. The UAB president terminated the football program only to have alumni and other boosters organize, fundraise, and secure trustees’ approval to reinstate the sport. And the president of the University of Idaho decided recently to downscale football participation – from the NCAA’s top tier to the second tier. The response, hailed by some, was also met with widespread expressions of concern, especially from alumni and other boosters.

So while I’d love to see university presidents, athletic directors, and trustees/regents talk publicly about the importance of social responsibility in college sports—and then act accordingly—I believe they’ll need political cover to do so. That’s why the NCAA should host a robust, national conversation about social responsibility in college sports. The organization needs to set goals, outline strategies, and benchmark progress.

What would progress look like? It will come when “best” means more than winning. The flat-out reality is that we don’t hold college sports programs to the same social standards we hold other organizations. That’s a shame. College sports is real life. It’s not just about playing games.

Reform would be good for college sports. For Alma Mater it would be even better.


An earlier version of this article was published in LA Progressive.


About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.

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Comments (Expanding the Concept of “Best” In College Sports)

    Neoliberalism’s Newest Iteration: A Progressive Rip Off by Frank Fear | Janet's Good News wrote (04/13/17 - 11:45:37PM)

    […] Combatting Progressive Neoliberalism is like playing Whack-A-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese. The target keeps popping up over and over again. Specializing in an area of concern makes more sense than trying to cover the waterfront. Because I’ve spent my career at what I call “Big U” (the large university sector) I know that sector well and have experienced its drift to Progressive Neoliberalism. I’ve structured my approach by speaking to the transition writ large and, then, by focusing on two areas of concern—deceptive uses of branding and the insidious nature of big-time, revenue-generating athletics. […]