What Is the Board’s Role in Overseeing Intercollegiate Athletics?

By    //    Volume 25,  Number 6   //    November/December 2017

Newly introduced national health and safety guidelines have shifted board oversight for intercollegiate athletics programs. Trusteeship asked Carol Cartwright, president emeritus of Kent State University and Bowling Green State University, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, and AGB senior consultant, to provide some insight into the board’s responsibility.

How has the national landscape for intercollegiate athletics changed in the past few years?

The national landscape presents very different issues for institutions based on their competitive classification (NCAA Divisions I, II, or III, NAIA). The area that is changing the most across all divisions is the prominence of health and safety issues.

Over the past several years, we have seen the introduction of new national health and safety guidelines and best practices about the conduct of sports and medical treatment of athletes. For example, football teams are limited on the number of contact practices they can conduct, and institutions are advised to have a concussion safety protocol in place. Boards should understand their institution’s status in implementing the new guidelines and best practices.

Financial considerations continue to evolve, creating new challenges. For example, federal tax reform could affect the deductibility of athletics donations. For NCAA Division I schools, the financial gap between the so-called Power 5 conferences and the other Division I conferences will continue to widen as a result of media revenues, creating new competitive realities for boards to consider.

How can boards provide proper oversight for intercollegiate athletics at their institutions?

To serve as guardians of the assets and act in the best interests of their institutions, boards must understand both the national context and their individual institution’s participation in intercollegiate athletics.

The environment has never been more complex as high-profile scandals damage the public trust in college sports. A recent NCAA poll found that 79 percent of respondents believe big universities care more about the money than their students who play sports, and about half believe the NCAA cannot manage the current tensions and problems.

What seems like an insatiable need to win— especially in football and men’s basketball—is driving problematic behaviors and creating negative perceptions about college sports at all levels. With this national backdrop, it is crucial for boards to provide appropriate oversight by:

  • Delegating management to the president, who, in turn, delegates to a senior administrator reporting directly to the president. Presidents cannot insulate themselves by pushing responsibilities deeper into the organizational structure.
  • Holding the president accountable for aligning athletics with the institution’s educational mission and values and assuring those in charge have a commitment to integrity. Tone at the top is critical. It should come from the board’s expectations and the chief executive’s leadership.
  • Ensuring the athletics mission is appropriate and the athletics programs operate under the same administrative processes as other parts of the institution. Decisions about budgets, capital expenditures, and academic standards should be integrated with the institution’s normal practices.

What is the appropriate structure for oversight of athletics programs?

High-performing boards accomplish their work through standing committees. They also offer comprehensive orientation to new members, including information about intercollegiate athletics. Some boards have a standing committee focused on athletics, while others include oversight for these programs in another committee. Either way, the key to strong board engagement and proper oversight is to ensure that the charge is clear and the committee asks important questions about academic mission and student-athlete well-being.

Board members should be informed and engage in discussion about:

  • athletic budget, capital expenditures, and debt load;
  • academic success of athletes;
  • athlete well-being and health and safety protections and benefits;
  • gender equity; and diversity of administrators, coaches, and athletes.

NCAA institutions have access to confidential dashboard metrics through the NCAA Institutional Performance Program that measures institutional performance and trends in these areas. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has championed financial transparency and provides helpful resources on its website (knightcommission.org).

Boards with a standing committee devoted exclusively to athletics must guard against the committee devolving into a group of boosters. There’s a big difference between exercising fiduciary duties and being a fantastic fan.

To learn more, please refer to the AGB Statement on Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics.