It’s time to innovate at NCAA conferences

The long-awaited NCAA Convention is in the rearview mirror and the real work has begun. Now is the time to rethink the benefits of the conference model. No, I’m not talking about talks about realigning the conference or getting more teams into the tournament. Conference leaders need to think futuristically about what makes them distinctive.

Let me explain. In the past, standard operating procedures included discussions of how to enhance your competitive advantages (or limit someone else’s) in a world defined by NCAA rules. The vast majority of conferences have a “working council” made up of athletic directors, senior female administrators and one or two student-athletes, who make recommendations to their presidents on rules, travel, voting on proposals NCAA, etc.

Now things are more complicated. The Supreme Court (in NCAA v Alston) basically told all college athletes that you can no longer act collectively. The rules of the game are one thing – schools can act collectively to legislate them; but the cap on what a university can offer for educational opportunities can no longer be regulated at the national level. New conversations will need to take place around creating accolades in each conference for athletes and employees.

In a conversation on my podcast last week, Horizon League Commissioner Julie Roe Lach and I talked about the shift in discussions she will have with both the athletic directors working council and the presidents at the era of conference autonomy and the natural tendency to borrow what others are doing.

“What we anticipate is what level of commitment is needed and how you find that balance,” Lach told me. In addition to always entertaining conversations about Covid restrictions and safety protocols, she works to “elevate thinking” about what the future holds.

In a world where the terms “competitive fairness” and “level playing field” are embedded in almost every decision, this new era does not allow for a national solution to control the off the field competitive environment: not in recruitment, not in names, images and likenesses, and not in financial rewards related to education.

Where university presidents used to look to other conferences (or the NCAA) to provide ideas or safeguards, each conference is now an island unto itself. And it will be a challenge for presidents (and, by extension, their own campus administrators, who must weigh in) to decide which direction to head first.

Presidents have more than financial responsibility for athletic programs within the conference; they have a fiduciary responsibility. While winning teams are often used as the defining variable of success (with graduation rates and GPAs not far behind), this new world order requires nuanced thinking to redefine the distinctiveness of a conference culture.

Here are some topics for athletic directors and presidents to consider:

  • Explore the definition of fairness. Whether it’s gender or race, many track and field programs prioritize one or two teams that get the bulk of resources and marketing attention, called “tiers.” Can your conference be a leader when it comes to creating equitable experiences and opportunities for all coaches and student-athletes? If so, what might that look like?
  • To holistically review the sports medicine and mental health resources currently provided to all athletes. As trustees, does it meet the standards you would want for your son or daughter playing high level sport?
  • If you find your staff members quitting athletics (an unfortunate trend emerging in the new world called the “great quit”), how can you make your environment more in tune with work/life balance than so many people are looking for? Asking people to continually do more with less is clearly a recipe for losing good employees. Can the conference reflect the best practices of each campus?
  • Finally, all conferences are responsible for their post-season championships. As demonstrated in the Kaplan report which examined NCAA gender equity issues in their championships, each conference should undertake a similar analysis with all of its events.

Setting the tone has always been the challenge for leaders. Now that the opportunity to innovate around the athletic conference model is here, one of the best things presidents can do is strive to reinvent their strengths. The number one priority should be to create the best culture possible; as business leaders often say fairness, trustworthy management, innovation, trust and benevolence towards those with whom you work are crucial.

Coaches think a lot about team culture and its importance to the success or failure of a program. They (and the athletes) know when they are working in a healthy and supportive environment that encourages their success. Conferences that create distinctive cultures will attract and retain great people, and that’s a major key to long-term distinctive success.

About Arla Lacy

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