Faculty Athletics Representatives (FARs) are designated by their institutions to serve as liaisons between their campuses and their athletics departments to ensure that appropriate balance is maintained between academic and athletic excellence. FARs also represent their institution at conference and NCAA levels, lending voice to important matters of policy and practice in intercollegiate athletics. In these regards, FARs operate as critical boundary spanning leaders on and beyond their campuses. A recent national survey indicated that 83% of FARs in Division 1 schools report feeling “empowered” by their institution’s President/Chancellor to carry out their roles and 89% of FARs report being empowered by their athletics departments.
One of the key factors in FARs’ capacity to have influence is the length of time that they spend in their roles. Nationally, the typical FAR has been in his or her role for seven years. Only 11% of Division 1 FARs reported having specific term limitations. Big Ten Conference FARs are especially stable: Seven of the current Big Ten institution’s FARs have been in their roles for more than twelve years and four others have been in their roles for at least five years.
Case Study: Relationships and Change at a FAR Meeting
I attended my first Big Ten meetings as a FAR for the University of Wisconsin on May 15-17, 2016. The two and a half day session began with a social mixer in the basement dining room of Morton’s Steakhouse. I walked to the restaurant from my hotel a few blocks away. I arrived to find a group of more than 50 athletic administrators, faculty, head basketball coaches, and Big Ten conference leaders engaged in friendly conversation over drinks with one another. I did not know any of them and stood alone by the bar until I was approached by Chad Hawley, an associate commissioner of the conference. Chad knew that I was Wisconsin’s new FAR and welcomed me to the group. He noted that many of the FARs and administrators from conference schools had grown to know each other quite well over years of working together. Over the course of the next couple hours, it was indeed evident that this joint group was comfortable together, as they shared laughs and commemorated the departure of one longtime administrator. As I reflected upon my first Big Ten meetings, in fact, the time-enriched social fabric of relationships among the Big Ten’s key players struck me as being critical in that substantive work among the institutions and the conference leaders flowed through these relationships
One clear example of relationships facilitating work occurred during the morning session of the second day of meetings, when FARs met with Chad to discuss issues related to game scheduling and student-athlete time demands. One of the FARs mentioned that the conference’s proposed schedule for women’s soccer called for his school’s team to play three Wednesday evening games away from home over the course of the season. The FAR was joined by others in referencing past conference meetings at which officials agreed that no team should play more than two mid-week away games due to concerns that student-athletes would be forced to miss too much class. Chad acknowledged the past agreement, but also noted that Wednesday evening games are televised on the Big Ten Network (BTN) and presented women’s soccer players with one of their few opportunities for broader exposure. Teams that played three Wednesday games were getting more games televised than other teams. A 15-minute conversation on the challenges and affordances of the schedule then flowed among the group, much of which referred back to as far as nine years ago at the founding of the BTN. Conference schools had each benefited over the years from having their own television network (in money and exposure), but also needed to ensure that these benefits did not conflict with student-athlete wellbeing. In this particular instance, FARs collectively perceived too much mid-week travel for sport competition as a threat to student-athletes’ chances to thrive academically.
I remained quiet throughout the conversation because I did not understand the history of this group’s work together on the issue, but all of the FARs from other schools actively contributed. Three of the FARs – the chair of the FAR committee and two others who had served in their roles for more than ten years – were particularly influential in discussing how and whether the schedule could be changed. As we adjourned for lunch, a clear consensus emerged among the FARs that, notwithstanding the benefits of exposure, no women’s soccer team should play more than two mid-week games on the road. Chad responded by saying that he would look into what could be done to address this concern.
We re-convened as a group a couple hours later and Chad reported that he spent time over the break with other conference leaders and that they had found a way to fix the schedule. No team would be forced to travel more than twice in the middle of the academic week. I was impressed with Chad’s responsiveness and surprised that the issue had been resolved so quickly. I saw this relatively minor event – the changing of a fall soccer schedule – as an important example of how stable, collaborative relationships could facilitate positive change. Big Ten FARs and administrators came to their meetings familiar with one another and fluent on the issues. I left the meetings encouraged by the group’s functionality and committed to increase my own understanding of the people and issues at the table.
What structures and conditions underlie FARs’ “empowerment” to best represent and advocate for their institution’s student-athletes in broader conference and NCAA settings?