Reminder: Pay Attention to the Ivies

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

This guest post comes our way from Alec Hurley, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Alec previously wrote about religion and football for SportsThink.

Despite being an athletic afterthought for most of the last century, the Ivy League continues to hold significant influence in the world of collegiate athletics.  Less than a week ago, the league comprised of institutions known more for their off-field accomplishments, became the first Division 1 conference to officially cancel all fall athletics.  Taking the boldest measure first, the Ivy League’s decisions allowed the more athletically dominant conferences of the Big10 and Pac12 to announce a restricted set of athletic plans several days later.  This begs the question, why aren’t sport management students at Power-5 universities exposed to the Ivy League athletics model?

The pattern of the Power-5 conferences (Pac12, Big10, SEC, ACC, and Big12) delaying action until after the Ivy League moves, has been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the global – though increasingly US-centric – pandemic.  Over the last five years I have sat in sport management classrooms as a graduate student and as a TA.  Those classrooms all resided in institutions within Power-5; Pac12 and Big12 respectively.  Students, both in my graduate cohort and the undergraduates I currently teach, routinely overlook the Ivy League when dealing with examples of intercollegiate athletics.  Regardless of the topic, budgeting, sociology, or ethics, the focus is nearly unanimously on the Power-5 conferences.  Recent trends in decision-making during times of crisis show that this oversight might be costly.

There are two specific lessons sport managers (students and professionals alike) can glean from the actions of the Ivy League over the last six months.  The first is decisiveness.  While patience remains a virtue, time sensitive crises – in the present case, one literally of life and death – require swift and unyielding action.  In March, the NCAA dragged its feet attempting to continue its absurdly lucrative March Madness basketball tournament.  The first conference to prematurely end its tournament, the Ivy League, did so two days prior and with full refunds.  Over the summer the Ivy League again acted purposefully by cancelling all fall athletics, even though coronavirus cases and deaths are decreasing in the northeast, where the league is located.  Yet universities and conference leaders in the most infected parts of the country continue to waver on the feasibility of live play in the Fall.

This brings us to the second lesson sport managers should learn from the Ivy League, the role and value of collegiate athletics as a part of the college experience.  Missions statements from athletic departments are rife with statements about caring for student-athlete well-being.  The current crisis exposed how hollow those sentiments are.  From the tone-deaf press-conferences of college football coaches to Power-5 teams losing up to a third of their roster due to quarantine after less than a week of summer practices, it is unclear just how seriously the well-being of student-athletes is being considered.  The Ivy League, by contrast, values athletics as a part of the fabric of the university rather than as the driving force behind enrollment and other financial acquisitions.  As such, the Ivies are better positioned to cope with the potential losses of athletics better than universities who rely on big-time college sports.  It is worth considering for our sport management courses, which model we should be teaching the next generation of leaders.

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