Leading from the West: A Conversation on Governance in College Athletics

by Justine Dodgen

When we talk of governance our first thought is often of the behavior of public officials, but governance is an idea that goes beyond politics; in fact there are many different spaces in which we can talk about governance. Coming up, we’ll be discussing college athletics as a form of public enterprise that faces increasingly complex governance issues.

For colleges and universities, athletic programs represent an external projection of the school’s image and define the way the school appeals to the public. Many college athletics fans haven’t gone to the school they root for or even visited the campus, but they feel deeply connected and support the school due to their passion for its athletics. How universities use this information when making management decisions is an important governance issue, which can be complicated by how schools must coordinate across multiple agencies, such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), private sponsors, and the media.

A university’s governance of athletic programs is made even more complex by the interactions between different sports with varied earning potential and the issue of how to find equality in men’s and women’s sports, when women’s sports tend to lose money. Smaller schools are finding it increasingly difficult to subsidize athletic teams that are unable to pay for themselves, with some universities cutting major sports altogether.

Dr. Rice
Dr. Condoleezza Rice

These are some of the governance issues that we will discuss at our upcoming event, Leading from the West: A Conversation with Condoleezza Rice, Patrick C. Haden, and Raphael Bostic. Last year, Rice and Haden were appointed to the inaugural College Football Playoff Committee, which selects the two teams that will face off each year in the College Football Playoff Championship. Rice, who previously served as U.S. Secretary of State and Provost of Stanford University, and Haden, Athletic Director at USC, will join Bedrosian Center Director Raphael Bostic to discuss the complex issues of governance in college athletics.

When we talk about governance in college athletics, the same values of democratic, transparent, and accountable leadership and decision making hold true. Recent events have demonstrated the need for college athletic governance that is transparent and accountable in both regulating bodies such as the NCAA and in university leadership. USC, Ohio State, University of Oregon, and University of Miami have all been involved in high-profile NCAA investigations in the past few years.

USC, which served a four-year period of NCAA probation that ended last June, has made extensive efforts since 2010 to improve the school’s image of accountability, transparency, and compliance. For example, USC has doubled the size of its compliance staff in the athletics department and worked hard to maintain a transparent relationship with the NCAA and with current and prospective athletes.

Pac-12-Logo-Surrounded
SC Trojans are part of the PAC 12 conference

The NCAA, for its part, recently implemented a new system for infraction penalties and enforcement, aiming to enforce regulations more consistently and fairly. The NCAA Division I Board also voted last fall to allow the ‘Big Five’ athletic conferences to govern themselves and change regulations to meet the needs of their schools’ athletic departments. This move, coupled with a growing trend among Big Five conference schools of making television and marketing deals directly, calls into question the future of the NCAA as college athletics’ governing body and the impact these changes could have on smaller schools.

Governance is also about remembering that leaders exist to serve their constituents. There has been growing demand from student athletes for schools to give them the rights and recognition they deserve in exchange for the prestige and financial success they bring to their schools. Recent lawsuits such as the O’Bannon case raise the issue of compensation for college athletes and whether they should be defined as professionals. USC is currently debating whether football players should be paid for participating in the school’s team, which raises concerns of how to treat these players as professionals while balancing the implications for cross-sport subsidies and equal treatment of different sports.

Managing a public enterprise with good governance is always a challenge, and there are many potential changes on the horizon for the governance in college athletics. We look forward to discussing these issues and debating best practices next week with Condoleezza Rice and Patrick C. Haden.