Expansion Pressures

October 1, 2003
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Last fall, Stanford President John Hennessy and I wrote a joint op-ed article on intercollegiate athletics. Duke and Stanford are generally acknowledged to be models in combining both academic and athletic excellence. As leaders of these universities, we, along with hundreds of thousands of other ardent fans, recognize the significant value intercollegiate sports add to student life and campus spirit, and we are proud of our student athletes, coaches, and athletics staffs.

Nonetheless, the theme of our op-ed was concern about the increasing tensions between the educational missions of our universities and the growing demands of big-time intercollegiate athletics. These days, the pressures of major intercollegiate sports loom so large for some students that they have a disproportionate, unhealthy impact on their lives. The costs of athletics programs have also been increasing steadily. It is often assumed that universities make money from athletics; this is very rarely true. At most institutions (including Duke), providing a rich array of athletics programs for our students at a competitive level requires a significant institutional subsidy. The wonderful new Duke athletics facilities in which we take such pride are our considered response to the increasing pressures of the burgeoning "arms race" to have ever bigger and grander stadiums and equipment in almost every sport; many institutions have invested far larger sums in athletics facilities in recent years.

Nationally, graduation rates of student athletes, particularly in the "revenue sports"--football and basketball--are embarrassing. Some championship-caliber teams on a few campuses had zero graduation rates in multiple years. In their recent book The Game of Life, William Bowen and James Schulman document that two-thirds of male athletes in all sports in this country have grade-point averages in the bottom third of their class. In general, female athletes also had poorer academic records than their non-athlete counterparts. I know our alumni are proud that the graduation rates of Duke athletes are consistently among the highest in the country, and we regularly have scores of Academic All-Americans in a variety of sports. But these national trends are troubling, and Duke cannot be wholly untouched by them.

What's causing these problems? Time demands on student athletes, including travel, have increased dramatically. There is little or no off-season. Spring sports require practice and competitive play for much of the fall, and vice versa. In addition to formal practice sessions, student athletes are expected to spend up to eight hours a week in conditioning and skill instruction. The NCAA imposes limits on "required athletic-related activities" to approximately twenty hours a week, but many student athletes say this figure does not come close to their lived experience.

I believe those of us charged with leading our nation's major universities have a responsibility to restore the primacy of academics in the lives of student athletes. For a start, tougher eligibility requirements for entering students are needed, including at least sixteen high-school courses in core subjects such as math, science, the social sciences, and the humanities. Recent NCAA legislation has toughened eligibility requirements for athletic participation, but more needs to be done.

We must also establish sanctions with real teeth for programs that fail to achieve reasonable graduation rates. These should include disqualification from post-season games and tournaments, and significant reductions in scholarships, for teams that do not meet academic standards. Finally, we need effective legislation to control "voluntary" practices, workouts, and off-season contests if we are to reverse the current pattern of activity that significantly limits athletes' ability to participate fully in the academic programs of our universities. It is hard for any single institution--or even any single conference--to do most of this alone and remain competitive; but together, with the will to exercise leadership, we are beginning to make a difference.

These issues were on my mind as we grappled last spring with the proposed expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Director of Athletics Joe Alleva; our coaches; the chair of the Athletic Council, Professor Kathleen Smith, and other faculty leaders; trustees; and the university's senior officers all felt that expansion was not in the interest of our athletes nor in the interest of the conference.

We have been concerned since the beginning of discussions several years ago about the impact of ACC expansion on the welfare of student athletes. I am convinced that some of our student athletes are already at the limit of what we can reasonably expect in terms of playing seasons, travel, and other demands on their time and energy. The ACC's own analysis showed that expansion would increase demands on students in several sports and limit the flexibility to design programs that are consonant with their needs. Student athletes, particularly in the high-profile sports, already must be extremely disciplined and motivated to juggle their time, have a fulfilling college experience, and graduate on schedule. We were convinced that expansion of the conference could work against these important values.

A second major concern was the absence of clarity regarding divisional alignments that might be expected to emerge from an expanded ACC. The ACC is distinguished by the intensity of traditional rivalries. Anyone who has attended an ACC basketball tournament will understand that issue. None of the solutions proposed seemed likely to protect traditional rivalries and sustained competitive equity within the conference. I was not prepared to sacrifice our Tobacco Road rivalries, which have meant so much to our institutions, without clarity on this question.

Finally, I was unconvinced, after reviewing various projections, that ACC expansion would produce appropriate financial benefits for our members. The models studied relied on assumptions about factors that may or may not fall into place. Financial considerations were never the major issue, in my view, even though one of the few arguments that could be given for expansion was that it would help us all financially. When that argument was called into question, there seemed to be very little to be said in favor of expansion.

Expansion proponents argued that intercollegiate athletics has changed, and the ACC needs to be part of these changes. I felt strongly that the decision to expand the conference would, in fact, exacerbate the very forces about which university presidents ought to be concerned and work against our efforts at reform. Increasing demands on our students that remove them from the lives of our universities, and rising costs of athletics programs, particularly in Division I, are putting considerable pressure on institutions to make trade-offs between supporting academic priorities and athletic priorities.

At the end of the day, I did not believe that there were good reasons for dissolving a partnership that has worked well or for lending presidential leadership to support forces of commercialization about which so many thoughtful people are concerned. For these reasons, when a majority of the leaders of the ACC voted to extend an offer to the University of Miami and Virginia Tech to join the conference, I could not cast a yes vote. This was not a reflection on those institutions, but was consistent with the principles I had consistently articulated in the ACC Council of Presidents on Duke's behalf. UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser, who shared these views and was an eloquent advocate for them in our deliberations, also voted against expansion.

Now that the decision to expand has been made, Duke will do whatever we can to help ensure that the distinctive advantages that have characterized the ACC for many years will be continued. We understand that these advantages were part of what persuaded our new partners to join us, and we want to be sure that they are sustained. These include priority concern for student-athlete welfare, an integrated conference with regular competition against all conference members, equity among all partners, a strong set of traditional, competitive rivalries, and collegial decision-making among conference leaders. We will do whatever we can to help design conference schedules that have minimal impact on travel time for student athletes and divisional alignments that are compatible with traditional rivalries.

Looking to the future, we want to continue the close communication among presidents and chancellors, as well as athletics directors and faculty athletics representatives, that has traditionally been an ACC hallmark. We are eager to strengthen the existing academic ties among ourselves and with our new partners, and to begin to explore new ones.

Above all, we want to help guarantee that the future will be shaped in ways that will protect crucial interests for our student athletes, for ACC institutions, and for intercollegiate athletics nationally.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on these issues.