If form holds true, then the presence this Saturday of ESPN Game Day on campus and a big win on national television (ABC) over the University of Oklahoma will translate into more donations to the university as a whole.
Athletics are “the window by which the world looks at your university,” said former Baylor football coach Grant Teaff, who was part of a panel at the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning’s annual Symposium on Faith and Culture, which drew about 350 attendees from across the country from Nov. 5-7 to hear 120 presentations, including one on whether faith has a place in sports reporting.
This year’s theme was The Spirit of Sports and featured a Higher Education and College Athletics panel that included Baylor President Ken Starr: Coach Teaff, who is also the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association: Nina King, deputy director of athletics for Administration/Legal Affairs at Duke University; retiring Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association executive director Dutch Baughman; and moderator L. Gregory Jones, senior strategist for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School and a recently named senior advisor in the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning.
The panelists agreed on the value of athletics to higher education, with Baughman rolling out a list of reasons that sports is not at odds with a university’s fundamental vision.
“It is the reason that alumni will come back,” Baughman said. “Eighty percent of donors started through athletics. It’s a rallying point for students, and applications increase with a successful football program.”
Teaff added, “You cannot put a price tag on the value of the exposure schools are getting from TV,” which drew a big grin from Starr. “It opens a spigot of alumni investment across the entire school.”
Teaff told a story about a Louisiana couple who approached him right after Baylor beat LSU in the 1985 Liberty Bowl. “We can now abuse those who have abused us,” they told him. “We don’t have children so we are going to give what we have to our football program,” which Teaff says has resulted in $40MM so far.
King said athletics is the “front porch of the school,” uniting alumni and providing an education for kids who might not otherwise get it. “People don’t realize that these young people are getting a double major in Academics and Athletics,” and that employers want to hire student-athletes because of their understanding of teamwork and their work ethic.
After noting that there are 22 references to athletic competition in the Bible, Starr said athletes record higher graduation rates. He recalled that when he took his current job, he asked a prominent alumni for some advice and was told, “Win some football games.”
“Donations go up when football does well,” Starr said, adding that athletic success provides people from different backgrounds (like professors from very different departments) with a “lingua franca” of sorts, a common language that they can share over coffee or at the start of a meeting.
Asked what’s changed in intercollegiate athletics over the past few decades, the panelists highlighted a laundry list of areas.
After saying Title IX, improved professional skills for athletic administrators, and the evolution of coaching are examples of good things, Baughman listed changes that he feels represent a turn for the worse, including skyrocketing compensation for coaches, the media’s approach to coverage (due in part to social media), and freshman eligibility, which means students can’t focus on their education early.
Baughman also said a change for the worse was “the role of alumni, where (donors, regents and trustees) are affected by comments on talk radio about their programs,” a comment that drew shared laughter between Starr and Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw, who was in the audience.
Starr pointed out that he is proud that Baylor’s annual athletic banquet is a celebration of academics rather than accomplishment on the field, adding that what keeps him awake at night is the continuing challenge of “victory with integrity” and building a culture of compliance and integrity at a time where the NCAA rules book now stands at over 400 pages and has gone through lots of iterations.
Duke’s King says she worries about gender diversity – only three of 65 athletic directors in the Power Five conferences are women – about the “facilities arms race” and the overall cost of athletic departments; about the increasingly complex legal landscape; about making sure schools over-deliver on their promises to recruits; about “helicopter parents” getting overly involved in their children’s college experiences; and on “preserving the Olympic Sport experience” at schools like hers.
Jones closed the program by asking participants to say one thing they’d do if they were the “csar” of college athletics. After Teaff said “win or lose, make sure the student-athlete is No. 1,” Starr said he would decrease student-athlete burdens and expand services including nutrition, in response to recent concerns at schools like the University Connecticut about students’ abilities to pay for food.
We have to get past a world where in the eyes of the NCAA “a bagel is a snack but a bagel with cream cheese is a meal,” he concluded.