Discussions of change and reform leave many leaders stuck interpreting rules and balancing budgets. Can we afford a new facility? Will new models of student-athlete support mean we need to cut other sports programs? Are students’ social media presences threatening their athletic eligibility? The matter to which leaders should remain especially attuned in these next couple years, however, is the potential for losing their foundational senses of meaning. Athletic departments must have crystal clear understandings of their current and aspirational identities. Who are we, why do we field an athletics program, and what do we hope to become? Sensemaking in a time of swirling fragilities requires ongoing reflection upon these identity questions, for today’s campus-level athletics threat is less deja vu (“we’re back to what we used to be”) than vu jade (“we have never been here before and we’ve got no idea where we’re going!”).
So, what is varsity sport at elite academic institutions? In the best of cases, college sports develop work ethic and foster competitive integrity. Top university programs prioritize a holistic student experience, including high-level academics and meaningful community engagement. These programs catalyze life opportunities for hundreds of young people from diverse backgrounds each year. In many instances, such as at the University of Wisconsin, athletics are a beloved instrument of social cohesion throughout their states. And, make no mistake, the best athletics programs win on the field and are significant financial enterprises.
What should universities aspire for their athletics programs to become? How can they grow the good?This, of course, is the question of the day – and one that needs to be answered collectively by a number of leaders. At a critical juncture of change in college sports, neither stagnation nor retreat are viable options. I suggest a universities consider a “connective growth” approach to athletic program development.
I refer to connective growth as a structural development perspective in intercollegiate athletics that promotes elite athletic performance while at the same time tethering to and advancing broader university ideals. Connective growth centers institutional identity, bridging the social distances that threaten to isolate athletics. This perspective can include various types of advancement, including facilities, personnel, and programs.
"I refer to connective growth as a structural development perspective in intercollegiate athletics that promotes elite athletic performance while at the same time tethering to and advancing broader university ideals."
For example, Notre Dame’s football stadium enhancement included redesigned seating areas, a new video board, and a renovated concourse – all of which were needed to keep pace with other top stadiums. However, in order to draw athletics closer to the school’s academic, religious, and student life identity, the project also included three new buildings that are adjacent to the stadium. These house a new student recreation center (for all students), a home for the Sacred Music Program, and a campus media facility. Additionally, the University’s Psychology and Anthropology Departments as well as a campus hospitality area are housed in the new complex. This was the largest facilities project in the University’s history and it is sure to impress football recruits and fans for years to come. It is also a clear example of connective growth because it unifies the campus community and advances institutional ideals. In fact, the Notre Dame project is not only connective in its outcome, but was connective in process, as 84 University faculty and staff experts from units such as architecture, engineering, technology, food services, and student life collaborated on the project design. The project utilized campus expertise and cultivated strong social bonds among groups that otherwise might not have interacted with one another.
"The Notre Dame project is not only connective in its outcome, but was connective in process, as 84 University faculty and staff experts from units such as architecture, engineering, technology, food services, and student life collaborated on the project design."
A connective growth perspective is also found at Vanderbilt, which competes in the SEC but, as an elite private school, has a much different institutional identity than its conference rivals. Its late Athletic Director, David Williams, was one of the most interesting elements of Vanderbilt’s athletic department. He was a tenured law professor with senior university administration experience. He carried out many of the same duties as other athletic directors and led a campaign to improve the department’s facilities. At the same time, Williams strategically enmeshed his department with other parts campus and the greater Nashville community in a multitude of ways. For instance, Williams compared student-athletes’ experiences with those of the broader student body and noticed that “his kids” were missing out on a number of learning and career development opportunities. As a result, he partnered with others on campus to create summer internship and study abroad opportunities for students. On a day that I visited campus, 65 Vanderbilt student-athletes were partaking in “capstone day,” where they presented on what they learned over the summer. Williams was beaming with pride about the students' presentations.
Williams also substantively integrated notions of equity and justice into the athletic department. He set an early tone for his student-athletes. Soon after arriving to campus, Vanderbilt freshmen were given tours of Nashville’s historic sites. They were introduced to local leaders in order to learn about and become engaged in their local community. And during Black History Month, Williams worked with Nike to develop special basketball jerseys that replaced players’ names with the names of local civil rights leaders. Each student-athlete learned about these leaders and represented them on the court as part of the athletic department’s “Equality Weekend.” In a press release, Williams explained:
Who were the people in our history and society that allowed the basketball games we watch today to have the diversity we see among the young people playing the game and attending our universities? Who were those folks who worked hard to make the city of Nashville and Vanderbilt University an open and welcoming place for all of us? I am honored to be a part of this great university as we take the time to recognize these icons, for they are truly heroes. I am humbled to stand on their shoulders for it is their leadership and courage that paved the way for all of us."
Yet another noteworthy indicator of Williams’ commitment to developing student-athletes’ civic awareness was seen in the special Martin Luther King, Jr. Day experience that he coordinated. Williams, along with several coaches and staff members, brought 28 student-athletes for a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The trip was described as “one of the greatest experiences of their lives.”
A final area where I was most impressed by Williams was in his orientation to research and data. He acknowledged that Vanderbilt is like many other elite institutions in that fractures can easily arise between athletics and academics. He viewed active engagement of festering campus-athletics tensions as one of his key athletic director responsibilities. He explained to me, “The onus is on us. We are very, very assertive with data. I will not let those critiques sit. I address them head on, right away.” Williams articulated how he analyzed every aspect of student data and regularly presents robust findings – far more than just “NCAA data” – to faculty groups and administrators. He exclaimed, “By the time I get done, it’s like a mic drop moment. There is no criticism.”
Williams cultivated a rich array of academic and social programming for his student-athletes all while aggressively ramping up facilities and paying big coach salaries. Nonetheless, he faced little push back on campus because the outcomes of his efforts were unmistakable. He lived out the University’s mission of “promoting inquiry, equality, compassion, and excellence in all endeavors” as well as anyone on campus.
The Notre Dame and Vanderbilt examples reveal their leaders’ understandings of institutional values. Their athletic departments operate well within what outgoing Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany would refer to as their “organizational DNA.” Their investments in athletics are on par with those of other major universities and, at the same time, are clearly connected to the deeper meanings of the schools.
Perhaps the best example of connective growth that I have learned about in recent years is at Stanford.
Stanford is one of the top universities in the world and has won the Director’s Cup, which honors the most successful athletic department in NCAA Division 1, for 24 consecutive years. Stanford fields one of the broadest programs in the nation – 36 varsity teams – and has won at least one national team championship for 42 consecutive years. I visited Palo Alto to learn about this remarkable success and “the Stanford Way” – an articulation of how athletics has thrived while embracing the university’s highest ideals.
Driving onto the campus early on my first day, I noticed a large billboard offering a congratulatory message from Stanford Medicine to the athletic department for winning its latest Directors Cup.
I parked and then made a short walk past Maples Pavilion (the basketball arena) and over to the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, where the offices of coaches and administrators, as well as the sports performance facilities are located. Inside the front door, I saw the department’s mission statement hung on the wall. The building was under renovation and I watched a worker down the hall creating a display of what looked to be the department’s values.
I spent the first part of the day in the weight room with Stanford's director of sports performance. He told me about his academic background (degrees in chemistry and social psychology) and his philosophy of student-athlete development. He only half-jokingly referred to himself as a “nerd” three different times. He juxtaposed his relatively small physical stature with that of large, muscle-bound strength coaches at other institutions. I was impressed with his ideas, which he justified with research evidence. I was intrigued by his method of linking current Stanford football players with past ones. He described how players can each choose someone from the past to model themselves after. The director has required every player from recent years to track their workouts and post-workout reflections. He organizes and keeps hold of a binder for every player, past and present. So, each day current players are able to review their model’s handwritten notes from when he was at the same phase of his career.
My brief time at Stanford was filled with a series of other meetings with coaches and administrators. I learned from each of them. Matt Doyle, Senior Associate Athletic Director and Head of Football Operations told me about his weekly routine of walking across campus to visit with faculty. He discussed the “faculty program” that allows each recruit to connect with the school’s world-renowned researchers and teachers during their visits. Matt introduced me to football coach David Shaw, who was visiting with other staffers in the common area. I noticed that the offices of administrators and various sports were integrated together throughout the building, so casual interactions like the one I had with Coach Shaw were normal. I watched as female and male coaches joked together and as student-athletes from different sports mingled on their ways in or out of the building.
More meetings followed, including one with Deputy Athletic Director Patrick Dunkley, who, like Vanderbilt’s David Williams, used to hold a position as general counsel. Patrick shared fascinating insights about the current climate of NCAA litigation. I then took some down time in the building’s “Jimmy V Café,” where four student-athletes ate together at one table and some senior citizens drank coffee at another. The café is open to the public. Toward the end of the afternoon, after a short time in the library archives, I walked to the football practice field, which is positioned right in the midst of campus. I observed practice for a bit and chatted briefly with one of the current players’ mother.
I provide all this specific description of my time at Stanford in hopes of illustrating what struck me most about the place: its innovation and interconnectedness. I witnessed a university where faculty and entire academic departments openly support, embrace, and participate in the athletics enterprise. I saw a department that employed strategies of structural design to encourage interaction among different people. I visited with coaches who embraced university expertise and, in some cases, even looked and talked like scientists. The organization impressed me as being composed of thoughtful, imaginative, individuals who were intricately linked to one another and their university.
Like Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, and Stanford, other universities' growth in athletics can be ambitious and connective, holding true to their identities. But if athletic departments' revenues and expenditures continue to escalate without parallel consideration of how more meaningful university connections can be forged, these departments risk further tension and critique from their own campuses.
The interdisciplinary team collectively invested over 3,000 hours in the planning process.
Williams was previously in senior administration at Ohio State.