To go or not to go? A View from Inside Big-Time College Sports

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the Athletic Director (AD) at the University of Michigan, inviting me and other members of the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics (ABIA) to join the “University Official Party” on a trip, courtesy of the athletic department, to watch the University’s football team compete at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida on New Year’s Day.

I have decided to decline the very generous invitation. It is not, I want to emphasize at the outset, that I think I have a complete understanding of this industry, and less that I believe mine is the only reasonable or morally appropriate response.  Far from it.  In fact, as I’m not a big football fan and the trip falls at a somewhat inconvenient moment, I really don’t think of my decision as having been primarily a moral one.

However, that’s not to say that I don’t think there are moral questions at stake, questions that go well beyond the specific issues and choices raised by this particular invitation.  Among these, I’m most interested in what role university faculty members, entrusted with the intellectual growth and overall well-being of their students, should have in relation to university athletic departments. So I share this information and, below, the feelings and thoughts that informed my decision about it in the hopes that it sheds light on the tensions at work in one small, but perhaps telling, corner of the massive entertainment industry that big time college sports has become.

Let me first share my reflections on sharing this information in this format, which I considered carefully. First, the fact that the athletic department offers this benefit to ABIA members is a matter of public record.  Likewise, all the information that I’m sharing concerning ABIA’s constitution and function come, as you’ll see if you follow the links, publicly available documents.  This is, I believe, as it should be: we are a public institution and I think our discussions regarding how to administer this institution should be available to the public. I don’t think we as a board should take positions or make decisions that we wouldn’t stand by publicly.  That said, I also respect my colleagues. Everyone I’ve worked with in this capacity has impressed me as sincere, thoughtful, and well-meaning, even when I disagree with them, and I do not wish to embarrass them or cause them discomfort.  For this reason, I have not here and do not intend in the future to share the remarks or views of my colleagues on the board, even in anonymized form.  I hope this will be sufficient to assure my colleagues of my intentions.

Now, I’m new to the ABIA and to the Academic Performance Committee (APC; a subcommittee composed of the faculty members on ABIA), having just started my first three-year term this Fall, so I confess I’m still fairly ignorant of how all this plays out in actual practice. But as I understand it, the ABIA’s role is to provide faculty input into the decisions made by the AD concerning the athletic department and the APC’s role is to provide faculty oversight concerning matters pertaining to the academic experience, performance, and eligibility of athletes—all this subject to the final authority of either the President or the Provost. There have been questions raised in the past at Michigan, and elsewhere, about whether this really constitutes adequate faculty control. (For details on the constitution and function of the ABIA and APC, and their history at Michigan, you can jump to the end of this post. As I say, everything there is drawn from publicly available documents to which I’ve provided links.)

But, seeing aside the historical details of ABIA at Michigan and beyond the specifics of the particular issue of the invitation to attend the Citrus Bowl, there remains the underlying, substantive issue, which I’ll frame in personal terms since that’s how I best process such questions: what (speaking now as a Michigan faculty member with a scholarly interest in matters of sport and society who regularly teaches students who are also athletes, and who know holds an administrative position on the only university agency through which faculty have input on the activities of the athletic department) should my role be?

I’d like, in part at least, to be the kind of person who, finding himself in this situation, can draw upon a set of stable, consistent, rationally derived moral principles to guide my decision making.  To my mild disappointment, however, I’m not locating such principles within myself.  Mostly, in fact, I’m encountering what feels like a pretty unstable mire comprised of visceral pulls and aversions, feelings, conscious and unconscious investments,  (some quite idiosyncratic, personal, and narcissistic), sparsely mixed with opinions whose strength is not quite matched by my still-growing knowledge about the issues.  It’s kind of a mess, and a mess that I find points my actions in different and sometimes contradictory directions at different moments depending on the the specific circumstances facing me.

That said, a promising, because relatively solid, starting point I find is my strong feeling of care for my students.  I’m not talking about students in general, nor about all students who are athletes. I’m saying I find I care very much about the well-being of my students, including those who are athletes.  But what does it mean, in this case, to act on that feeling? Some of my students are on the football team. I care about them and I remember that when I was an athlete, it meant a lot to me that teachers came to my games. I don’t mean to exaggerate the importance of this, but I’m sure that my football-playing students would feel some version of this.

On the other hand, they are also my students, some of whom have during this semester in my Global Sports Cultures course heard me describe the current state of research on the harmful effects of sub-concussive brain trauma sustained regularly by football players in the course of practice and games; or the vast sums of money that the NCAA and its member institutions, media conglomerates, and apparel manufacturers make off their efforts.  I’ve asked them, as I’ve asked all my students, to consider carefully their position in relation to these dynamics. What lesson—and I don’t mean this rhetorically, but genuinely—might they draw by my going to the Citrus Bowl—where they will collide with other young men as millions watch and millions of dollars are generated? I wonder.

Moreover, I care about my students not only as athletes or students, but in a holistic way; perhaps most of all in a holistic way. I feel responsibility for their growth and development and well-being as adolescent human beings.  As such, I’m concerned about the toll that their participation in college sports, as currently configured, may have on them. I don’t just mean the physical toll, but the psychological and intellectual toll. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that most of them would say that playing college sports is one of the most physically, psychologically, and intellectually satisfying parts of their life experience.  That may be true from their point of view and perhaps that is where my rumination should stop.  But I’m their teacher and mentor, not to mention their elder, with all the differences in perspective, for better and or worse, that comes with that. From that perspective, my concern only heightens precisely because they seem so innocently unaware of it. I worry, in other words, about their futures.

But I’m also a sports fan and have been for as long as I remember. What does that mean to me? It means that I’m drawn to the aesthetic beauty of athletic performance as a form of art and to the suspenseful narrative micro-dramas that unfold in the course of sporting events. It means that to some degree I’m identified with and invested in the success of particular teams, like those that represent Michigan, and to individual players, some of whom I know personally.

It means also, in my case, that I feel a desire to be in the close proximity of sports and of athletes.  I feel a rush from my personal acquaintance with athletes that others know only as distant objects, two-dimensional figures on a television screen or dots on a field or court far below their perch in the nosebleed seats.  Of course, I also know this is childish and perhaps foolish. I know—I just said—that they are just human kids and that their being constructed as heroic objects of veneration by fans, the media, and their institutions is part of the problem. In fact, this dimension of sports culture is part of what makes me averse and somewhat ashamed to be a sports fan when I’m talking to people who are not. And yet, there that childish, foolish feeling is, rising up and nudging me toward the thrill of seeing a bowl game in person (never mind that I’ve probably watched no more than a dozen of them on TV in my entire life).

Finally, what about my role as a faculty member on the ABIA? Can I really perform the independent advisory functions I have been appointed to perform when I am also accepting a gift from the university agency that I’m supposed to be independently advising and overseeing? Honestly, I feel that accepting the gift wouldn’t cause me to pull any punches I’d otherwise be inclined to throw. But maybe I’m wrong. Yet, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a structural conflict of interest involved, nor does it mean that this conflict of interest should be ignored.

Some of my students, when I shared the situation with them in class the other day, suggested that I should go because, after all, that would put me face to face with decision makers and augment the scope of my influence over them.  Maybe.  Though, if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t really believe it.  For one thing, I’m not sure that a bowl game is a place where any matters that matter are going to be discussed. As I told my students, it’s not as though I imagine getting Jim Harbaugh drunk in the hotel bar and convincing him to agree, with tearful relief, to blow up the whole system like some NCAA Mikhail Gorbachev presiding over the dismantling of the Soviet Union. My wife, who has a talent for storytelling, thought this would make a great short story, especially if it ended with me, having broken him down, berating him to “get it together, man, ’cause, after all, you got a ballgame to win tomorrow!” I wish, kind of, but I don’t think that’s how it would go down.

In fact, since I’m being honest, I’m somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of anything that matters in college sports changing as a result of the discussions and decisions that are made in the meetings of the ABIA. That’s not because of anything that has occurred in my experience so far.  And part of me understands that meaningful change in human history has sometimes occurred in piecemeal fashion.  But I also understand that these sorts of piecemeal changes don’t always add up to meaningful structural changes; indeed, that sometimes they defuse the energies that might drive more significant changes.

In this case, though I reserve the right to contradict myself and change my opinion, I see college sports changing in ways that significantly address what I see as the injustices in them only because athletes rise up collectively and threaten, as the Missouri football team did a few weeks ago, to refuse to play unless changes are made, which is why I actively support the work of the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Coalition (CARE-FC).  In the long run, I suppose my hopes for change lie in the belief that subsequent generations of athletic and university administrators, if drawn from the ranks of the more politically conscious of today’s younger generation, will imagine and implement a new system.  Maybe.

My therapist asked me today to imagine going to the game and sitting next to our AD, Jim Hackett, who in my few encounters with him has struck me as a sincere and caring person, one who has in his short time as interim athletic director left the program in better shape than he found it. What, my therapist asked me, do I imagine myself saying to him as we munch on Buffalo Wild Wings and watch, comfortable behind the plexiglass walls of a skybox, my students bashing into some Florida professor’s students on the field far below under the Florida sunshine? I had an answer straightaway. “Man, Jim, I love sports and I love my students, but I’m finding it hard to watch this.  They’re hitting each other so hard and I just can’t forget what I know may be happening to their brains on every play. What do you do with that?”  My therapist thought that would be a good thing to say. He said it sounded empathetic and inviting.  Maybe that would be good.  Certainly, I’ve found Jim to be an empathetic person.

But I must admit that the fantasies my imagination has generated—with and without therapeutic prodding—in response to this invitation suggest an investment I have in being important and being recognized as such; in being uniquely suited to somehow say the right thing, push the right button, and save the day.  “Bad Prof Fixes College Sports” the headlines in my imagination might read.  Those fantasies and the insecurities and investments they bespeak don’t feel like very promising ground from which to be making decisions.

So all this messiness might disqualify me in some eyes from holding the positions as professor, as scholar, or as board member, that I hold. I confess I feel that way myself sometimes.  But I wind up feeling that it shouldn’t be so.  On the contrary, I feel that faced with the enormous complexity of the situation called big-time intercollegiate sports in this country, and the powerful cocktail of emotions that situation stirs in just about everyone (even those who hate them and feel they have no place in universities) it might actually be better if more of the participants and decision-makers were honest with themselves and publicly forthcoming with others about their uncertainties and ambivalences.

It’s not that I’ve encountered any individuals who I’ve felt were insincere or deceptive in the their words or actions.  It’s more that I feel that there are systemic pressures in place that subtly lead all of us involved to disregard certain concerns or uncertainties as either out of place or unworkable or for some other reason not worth considering or not safe to say.  Airing these, as I’ve tried to do here might not lead to any immediate solutions. It might lead to some ultimately unproductive discussions.  Perhaps, even, it would create some chaos.  But imagine a conversation in which various “stakeholders” were free to say, “Man, we really love college sports, but this is a bit of a cluster fuck right now, isn’t it? Let’s try to do better!” or whatever their version of that might look like. Things could get interesting.  In any event, I guess I’m feeling that a little honest chaos would be preferable to what seems to me to be a somewhat dishonest order.

A History of ABIA, APC and Faculty Control Issues at Michigan

In accordance with the University of Michigan Regents’ Bylaws (section 11.58.1), I was appointed to the ABIA by the president from a panel of senate members chosen by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, subject to the approval of the Board of Regents. The ABIA also includes two members of the faculty senate, the University’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR), two student-athletes, two alumni, the AD (who has no vote), and an executive officer of the University.  The Bylaws also specify that the faculty members on ABIA, myself included of course, will constitute—together with a representative from the  Registrar’s office—a separate committee, now known as the Academic Performance Committee (APC).

The ABIA’s functions are also defined by the Regents’ Bylaws. First, the ABIA advises the AD, who is supposed to seek and consider our advice on “all major financial and policy decisions with respect to the program on intercollegiate athletics.” Then, the ABIA makes, adopts, and enforces—”subject only to the ultimate authority of the president and the Board of Regents”—”the necessary rules and regulations governing all questions pertaining to the eligibility of players, intercollegiate relations, and membership in associations of universities and colleges organized for the regulation of athletics” (11.60)  As for the APC, its function is—”subject to the final authority of the provost”—”to examine and appraise the academic performance of intercollegiate athletes, to determine their eligibility for competition in intercollegiate athletics, and to take any other action regarding such candidates as may seem necessary or appropriate under the circumstances (11.59).”

Now, according to “Rule 3. Membership” from the Big Ten Conference’s 2011-2012 Handbook, “Only a university having full and complete faculty control of its intercollegiate athletic programs may hold membership in the Conference. Faculty control is achieved whenever authority over a university’s intercollegiate athletic programs is vested in a university agency composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority.” I first encountered this passage before I’d been appointed to the ABIA and, at the time, I wondered whether Michigan had any such agency (i.e. “composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority” vested “with authority” over the university’s intercollegiate athletic programs).

Colleagues with greater knowledge of our institutional history weren’t sure, but they explained to me that up until 2001, there was an agency with a faculty majority called the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics.  This body appears to have been replaced by the ABIA and APC through amendments to the Regents’ Bylaws proposed by then University-President Lee Bollinger. Bollinger said at the time that “All of this is to make sure intercollegiate athletics don”t get out of control. The Athletic Department is not an independent body within the University but is subject to University policies.”  He went on to explain that the “Board in Control should be, and has been, unmistakably advisory the name should be changed to reflect that.”

According to The Michigan Daily‘s article on the change, “Bollinger said he wants to limit the authority of the Board in Control to issues in which academic and financial concerns collide, such as extending the sports season for playoffs even when such a move could compromise students” academic life by conflicting with exams,” but, quoting Bollinger now, “the question of whether our football players should practice in a national playoff should not be rested [sic] in the board.”

Apparently, some members of the faculty-comprised Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs voiced concerns that this put the University’s policies at odds with both the Big Ten and the NCAA’s membership criteria.  Of even greater concern to the faculty at the time was the codification of the merely advisory function of the newly constituted ABIA: “‘If the president is the one making the final decision,” one faculty members asked, “is there a reason why the president should seek the advice of the Board in Control?'”   Bollinger, according to the article “said that although changes to the bylaws will place more power in the hands of the president, he does not believe the Board in Control’s concerns will be ignored or that the University”s Big Ten membership will be compromised.”  Some might argue that the APC’s authority over academic standards and eligibility or the President’s final authority on all these questions satisfies the membership criteria concerning “complete faculty control” described in the Big Ten Handbook.

I’m not so sure it does. But—surprise!—that might be okay with me since I’m not even sure that “complete faculty control” over athletics is a principle I support without qualification. I believe faculty with expertise in the matters constituting the intersection of athletics with the university’s mission (education, health and well-being, economics, ethics and culture) should be represented as the majority on a board that collectively has complete control. But I also believe that students (both non-athletes and, especially, athletes) should be on that board. Finally, I think it’s important to have representatives of the athletic department administration and the university’s central administration on the board, without a vote.




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