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Entertainment or Education?

College athletics must choose its path and purpose of direction

By Michael Smith
Kevin White listens as Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski announces his retirement after this season. getty images

Former Duke Athletic Director Kevin White, 71, quietly slipped into retirement in August after 47 years as a coach and administrator in college athletics. Many of his friends joke that his timing is impeccable, given the chaos that’s rippling through the business.

Through nearly half a century in college sports, including 39 as an AD, White has distinguished himself as one of the game’s brightest minds and critical thinkers, especially at times of instability. Like, now, when the NCAA is undergoing a wholesale transformation.

White says the NCAA must pick a direction — continue down this path as an entertainment property or re-establish its roots in education.

“The NCAA re-imagining itself, or endeavoring to re-imagine itself, is a pretty critical moment in the history of college sport,” White said. “It might be the most critical moment.”

White was relaxing on the Florida coast as he spoke to Sports Business Journal and provided his thoughts about this period of change and the future that awaits the NCAA:

We’re in an enormous correction.

It’s an enterprise correction, for sure. When you look at the student-athlete side of college athletics and the entertainment side, college athletics is heavily favoring the entertainment side, at least for the schools at the highest level. There’s always been a tug of war, but as of late, I find myself really conflicted over that. I’ve been a practitioner. I’ve got dirty hands. I’ve pushed the entertainment side as much as anybody. We’ve worked really hard to monetize a lot of these properties. But the experiential side, which is code for the student-athlete experience, has become less served than the entertainment side. That’s a little edgy and people would feel uncomfortable hearing me say that, but that’s just my observation.

The NCAA is an antiquated model that’s out of touch with this particular inflection point. We’re at a point where we’ve got to re-imagine the division of oversight between this association and the conferences, and that’s what is going on at the moment.

(NCAA constitution committee chair) Robert Gates is the perfect strategic thinker and leader to serve as the air traffic controller to take the association to this next iteration, whatever that will look like. We’re clearly in transition to something other than the current situation.

The association leader is perhaps the toughest and worst job in all of sport. I’ve said that before, and it’s never gotten a lot of traction, but it’s a brutally tough job. I think it’s an impossible job.

Growing up in New York, I have a lot of New York-isms. Power and authority are incommensurate with responsibility as it relates to being the head of the NCAA. In New York as a kid, we’d say, “It doesn’t cash flow.” And I don’t know how you ever put it into a cash flowing perspective. I just don’t know that it can — too many competing agendas.

The monetization of college sports has become way too large. All the current behaviors that are being exhibited by the different constituency groups — players, student athletes, coaches, institutions — are all pretty predictable.

We’re supposed to be in the leadership development business, and I love that. It’s been practiced pretty well in a lot of places. Maybe the constitution committee can think about, reorient, reconfigure the parent organization so that it’s more in line with that kind of thinking. But I find that those are polarizing kinds of opinions. Either you’re in the entertainment business or education business, and it’s really hard to be in both.

Institutions are utilizing the heck out of college athletics, more so than I think they ever have in their history. There was a time when that would have been considered crass. Today, it’s almost a uniform practice. To be a little cold-hearted, college athletics has become a pawn in an institutional game. So, we again find ourselves competing for brand upward mobility. Institutions are all upwardly mobile. They’re not unlike athletics programs. They’re competing for national rankings and resources. Athletics is very much now married to that proposition.

College sport has proven to be largely recession proof. It’s not pandemic proof, but it’s been recession proof. And that tells you a lot about this pop culture and this insatiable interest in sport, not just domestically, but globally.

We’re trending toward more autonomy for the conferences, a little more separation between the divisions. And maybe creating a reasonable division of oversight responsibility. It seems like we’re thinking in terms of greater segmentation.

We’ve grown accustomed to what we’ve created in college athletics and what has, over time, become socially celebrated. I don’t know how we reverse course at this point. It’s really hard to serve both masters (education and entertainment) because I think they are diametrically opposed. No one wants to say that because it’s politically incorrect, but those are the things I think about after almost half a century in this.

I tell people looking to get into the business that this is the greatest profession there is. I’m giddy about my time and very appreciative. I might also tell them that this isn’t fandom. This is going to be really, really hard. The game is changing and it’s going to get more challenging, not less.

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