This is the one of many columns to be written by UMBC Director of Athletics Dr. Charles Brown. Dr. Brown is believed to be the longest-tenured AD in the state, with over 20 years at the helm of the Retrievers. He has been an athletic director since 1981 and has served two terms as president of the Maryland Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and one term on the NCAA Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet.
As my career in college athletics comes to a close this June, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences as a student-athlete, coach and athletic director. For me, the story started in 1965 when I tried out for the Long Island University varsity wrestling team and, as a “walk-on,” worked my way into a starter’s position as a light middle weight (130 lbs. – 137 lbs. – 145 lbs.) for several years.
After graduation in 1967, I taught physical education in an elementary school in Harlem, N.Y. I got a big break in 1970 when I was chosen as wrestling coach and physical education instructor at historic Hunter College of the City University of New York. After coaching and teaching for a decade at Hunter College and earning a doctorate in P.E. with a concentration in administration and sport psychology, I was chosen by Hunter College’s Donna Shalala (President Clinton’s cabinet/University of Miami President) to be athletic director.
In 1989, a fledgling UMBC Division I program took a chance on me to lead the Retrievers through our NCAA Division I odyssey. Overall, it’s been 48 years with lots of amazing experiences and memories. From my days as a walk-on student-athlete, to those as an athletic director traveling across our country and even to Europe, I’ve had a “storybook” ride. From Final Fours in huge venues to dual competitions in now torn-down Gym 1, and from working with hesitant beginners to potential All-Americans and professional athletes, I’ve seen an amazing metamorphosis in my chosen profession.
What I’ve seen has been mostly good, but there’s also been a swing to the bad and the downright ugly.
Despite all the media hype about abuse in college athletics, cheating, drug abuse, spiraling costs and the like, the facts still show that we are, for the most part, providing a positive experience with positive results.
Some of the positives that we in the field are most proud of include:
- Student-athletes’ grade-point averages and graduation rates continue to exceed the overall undergraduate rates on a national level. Despite all the negatives about taking advantage of African-American student-athletes, minority student-athlete graduation rates consistently exceed those of their cohorts.
- With the inclusion of Title IX legislation in 1972, women’s athletic programs, now a part of the NCAA, have expanded at an amazing rate, far exceeding growth of men’s programs. Women’s athletic events on college campuses are treated in similar fashion to men’s, and numbers of women’s teams, scholarships, coaches’ salaries are all on the rise.
- Media exposure in all sports, especially men’s and women’s basketball and football is everywhere. Olympic sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, volleyball, swimming, and track & field are included in NCAA/CBS-ESPN deals. Twenty-four hour sports radio/cable/internet outlets have special program coverage for every sport from lacrosse to bowling on the airwaves, on the blogs, and in print media. Exposure of our products has been a good thing.
- Sports Medicine has matured with greater vigilance and prevention features. Better student-athlete preparation, student-athlete screening, balanced diets, drug testing, weight-loss awareness, concussion procedures, on-site medical personnel and the like have created a much healthier environment for our participants. Exercise physiology research and training systems have helped in creating appropriate environments and improved results dramatically.
- Enhancement of training and competition facilities has created greater access for participants and safe environments for competition. Better lighting, safer turf, “faster” pools and tracks, spectator-friendly seating, indoor work-out facilities, electronic media enhancements, etc., all help not only to protect the student-athletes, but also promote better spectator attendance at competitions. By providing separate training and competition venues for each sport, i.e., soccer/lacrosse/field hockey, teams do not have to overlap and create continuous back-to-back practice situations.
- Access for minorities/gays/women has become more inclusive. Many who can’t afford to attend college are also given opportunities through athletic grant-in-aids.
- Olympic sports development has had mixed results. Several sports have had decreased offerings with Division I schools dropping programs due to Title IX compliance or budgeting issues. (i.e., wrestling, fencing, gymnastics, swimming, field hockey) However, training facilities, championship competition and additional sports (crew, bowling, and lacrosse) are growing exponentially. No other country in the world can compare their overall athletic facilities for training, participation, and spectators to those found in the USA. College campuses provide a large percentage of what is available throughout our country.
- College student-athletes are among our most gifted athletes. They have been encouraged to give back to their local communities and most comply enthusiastically. At UMBC, community service plays a large role for our student-athletes. We work closely with local schools, charities and seniors to provide education, mentoring, encouragement, and enjoyment for diverse populations. This has not only helped our community, but also has helped our student-athletes grow and develop into productive citizens.
- The Student-Athlete Advisory Council found on each NCAA college campus, is comprised of representatives from every team. Each athlete and team can express their concerns and needs that are heard by athletic administration. Leadership skills are developed that lead to future success upon graduation.
- Student-athletes are immersed in “success” skills for future employment. Resume writing, social skills, public speaking, “mingling skills”, multi-tasking, and working under pressure are all experiences that our 400 student-athletes receive during every season of play.
- There are 300,000-400,000 student-athletes competing every year for the NCAA across all three subdivisions. The student-athletes develop friendships for life. I did! They get to travel, have amazing experiences, and develop a bond with their university that is hard to match. Spirit, loyalty, and desirability are three of the most obvious traits that are developed. They become great alums!
BAD & UGLY
While there are numerous positives, what the public hears primarily through the media is the “Bad and the Ugly”. Good news is, in general, not quite as interesting and compelling as the BAD.
- It seems as though universities are switching conferences on a daily basis. The primary motivation is money and T.V. exposure. There is little concern for travel issues, traditional rivalries, or local fan base support. Many of these moves (conference hopscotch) are mistakes and big calculated risks.
- Pressure to win sometimes means recruiting student-athletes that are not even close to the university’s academic profile. No matter how many watered-down courses and how much academic tutoring is available, eventually, out-of-control recruiting results in Academic Progress Report problems, low graduation rates, and sanctions, i.e., UConn Basketball. Academic fraud is also a result of the win-at-all-cost atmosphere—who’s writing the “term papers” and who’s actually taking the “on-line” courses—ask Florida State, University of Minnesota, etc.
- Unfortunately, physical and mental abuse from coaches has always been around. However, with greater scrutiny, the internet, You Tube, Tweeting and the like, what used to be hidden and “hushed up” becomes viral and spun on cable sports so that the public gets to read about, hear about, and sometimes see the abuse. Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana, and Texas Tech are but the tip of the iceberg. Old-fashioned ways take time to disappear, but with more transparency the tolerance of these practices by the public and administration is disappearing.
- What does it take to develop a competitive athletics program? Salaries for high profile sport coaches regularly exceed the university president’s salary. All coaches’ salaries at the Division I level are becoming hard to manage. The number of assistant coaches for football and basketball are out of control. Most Division I men’s basketball staffs have three full-time assistants, one director of operations, one strength & conditioning assistant, one academic counselor and secretarial staff. The women, of course, need the same staff size. All this is for a 13-15 member team. Every sport we offer (19 at UMBC) is either at the NCAA maximum allowable scholarships or close to the maximum. With the current prices for a college education, we allocate more than $4,000,000 annually just for scholarships. “Mega” athletic facilities are being built in every state to keep up with the competition—facilities include film rooms, lounges, study centers, weight rooms, snack bars, Hall of Fame rooms, lecture halls and an amazing array of “locker room” facilities. Remember that little Hickory High gym in the movie Hoosiers? Whatever happened to the NCAA buzz words of the 80’s—COST CONTAINMENT? Now we have what some call the “Arms Race.”
- What are the sport program goals? We’ve lost sight of the real purpose of college athletics—35 bowl games in football with no real national championship. We now have year-round training, during the traditional (i.e. fall) season, a spring season, summer practice, year-round weight training, skill group training and because of this, some student-athletes never have a chance to be a “real” college student. Being a Division I student-athlete has, in many cases, become a full-time job. Tryouts have now become legal, which will create future problems.
- Who pays for all the new facilities, scholarships and mega salaries? T.V. and gate revenues become more important than ever. Wealthy boosters are wooed to support the program. In some cases, state tax dollars are used and abused. With all this pressure to win, that’s where the “fun” really starts. Winning becomes more important than educating!
- The NCAA rule book, despite the attempt to become simplified through reducing and easing the rules, has in fact, become more burdensome than ever. There continues to be massive recruiting violations and continuing eligibility violations. Rules which are forced to address the large influx of foreign recruits and recruiting of potential student-athletes that have not completed their junior year in high school continue to evolve.
- In the 1990’s, the NCAA legislated new governance in NCAA Division I. No longer is there one vote for each school on legislative matters. Now we have groupings of powerful committees made up of a Division I-A members with a majority vote on all matters pertaining to our governance. NCAA Division I-AA and AAA have little choice but to go along with the “Big Boys” on all NCAA legislation. Maybe the NCAA needs four divisions-with the top 60-80 mega programs separate from the rest of us!
- While we all know that the professional leagues look to our student-athletes as recruits for their programs, recently the situation has gotten extreme. The Kentucky Wildcats win the NCAA Basketball tournament with a “loaded” freshmen class that immediately declares for the NBA. There are no negative consequences and they, in turn, recruit another class of frosh to compete. Their graduation rate is not currently affected because going pro exempts them from counting in the rate. What a sham! Student-athletes are leaving early to go pro in a variety of sports. I guess we’ve become a minor league, feeding players to the professional leagues.
Many people have predicted the demise of the NCAA. Some say we should implode a system that is broken. I have worked in athletics since 1970 as a coach and athletic director. I believe that the good outweighs the bad and the ugly. However, we as coaches, athletic directors, presidents and Board of Trustees/Regents must be vigilant and principled. Athletics must be a part of the educational process of the student-athlete on a college campus. Otherwise, it doesn’t belong there. We must keep our programs affordable, professional, honest and wholesome.