Corporate Culture and College Athletics

I think I’ll probably come back to this subject many times but I thought I’d blog about something serious. College athletics is a professional venture. It’s an odd entity funded by public universities, private donations and ticket sales. In return for getting state money it puts on a veil of equality and parity between football, basketball and non revenue sports. While I don’t have inside information on every athletics department in the country I imagine the mentality is very much about maximizing revenues in football and basketball and reducing expenditures in other sports. Instead of embracing their unique business model college athletics has become a development program for professional sports with the “dead weight” of those other sports.

In addition, many student athletes leave college feeling used or abused. They’ve put in thousands of hours of physical and mental preparation for their sport and athletics department at the sacrifice of school. When competitive sports is no longer a part of their lives these athletes often feel under prepared in comparison to the average non-athlete undergraduate. I would argue athletes have a tremendous advantage given their breadth of experiences and well developed work ethic but they’re rarely prepared for a traditional professional world undertaking. When it comes time to give back few to none feel compelled to donate and when speaking about their experience words are often restricted to hollow platitudes.

Athletes are different, and college athletes are all unique people. Most come into college confident in their sport only to “broken down” so they can be built back up submissive to their coaches. I’ve watched talented athletes never recover from being broken down, losing themselves in the overwhelming experience that is going to college. I’ve also personally experienced the pain of “rebuilding” after a coaching change because the team is solely defined by the head coach, not the athletic department as a whole. Instead of providing a one of a kind four to five year life training program focused on social, scholastic, athletic, mental and nutritional development many athletic departments are content increasing their recruiting budget every year and crossing their fingers that this one new 18 year old is going to change the university’s luck and therefore profit.

I think people like to draw parallels to Steve Jobs and the culture that is Apple (think different) far too often but I’m going to do it. Apple stores are by far the most profitable per square foot and the company is now an American icon. Nobody argues that their products aren’t fantastic but their engineers aren’t super beings, they just work in a corporate culture that gets the absolute most out of them (take a hint Yahoo and Microsoft). Why then do college athletic programs want to be just like their big brothers?

Here’s what you have as an Athletic Director: impressionable 18 to 23 year old kids of all races and background. It is your goal to get them to win and make the university money. Stop aiming to satisfy NCAA goals and create a cult atmosphere where your athletes and employees eat, breathe and sleep their school and athletics. Focus on the negative stereotypes of athletes and help them change it. Many are not as confident as they seem after growing up constantly critiqued and pigeon holed as dumb jocks. Teach them to be more than athletes. Make community leaders; people, that when eligibility is exhausted, won’t be looking for an entry level position but will be empowered because they’ve had a full time job and then some for 5 years.

Be audacious and tell your student athletes they don’t have to settle for the status quo. Teach them to be different and not except somebody else’s definition of who they should be. Teach them to be assertive and confident that even if they make a mistake they’ll recover faster than their opponent in life. I’m saying build bad asses, not just on the field but all around. Then watch your bottom line fall and your revenue grow because you have recruits banging on your door and contests won before anyone ever steps on the field.

Full disclosure: I’m a proud graduate of the University of Kansas. Rock Chalk Jayhawk.