Broken: The College Athletics System (Here's What's Wrong and How To Fix It)
The NCAA system needs some adjusting, especially when 5 college athletes have committed suicide in less than two months.
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Since March, five college athletes have ended their own lives.
They were only a few weeks away from summer and putting the stresses of being a student-athlete in the rearview.
Today’s post is a little bit different, as I try to dissect this issue alongside Alex Auerbach, Director of Wellness & Development for the Toronto Raptors.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about ways to help college athletes. The conversation is great, and providing more resources for these athletes is certainly a step in the right direction…
But the problem isn’t resources. The problem is the system.
College athletics is broken. The model is built around making money.
The system isn’t designed to take care of people. Like old industrial businesses, the model is designed to increase production, which increases revenue.
The way the system has optimized to produce revenue is to give power to the coaches —just like traditional businesses use with managers. They are expected to build their teams and live with the consequences of their performance.
The coaches are primarily incentivized to keep their job through production on the field/court. It’s all about W’s.
Coaches are rarely kept on because they graduate great students/people. If they don’t win, they’re fired - even if EVERY OTHER OUTCOME is good.
Here’s an interesting stat for you:
Roughly 4% of a college athlete’s time spent in their sport will be actual games. The other 96% consists of practice, training, rehab, and other activities to prepare for games.
So we have a structure where the most important thing isn’t what happens in the roughly 164 hours/week outside of the game, but in the 2 hours spent competing.
If you are judged solely on 2-4 hours a week, and you don’t have control over all the factors that contribute to that performance during that time, what do you do as a coach?
You start looking for ways to make the rest of the time “work for you.” Not for the athletes.
Here’s where we see the pressure to increase practice time, training time, and more film sessions.
Athletes don’t have time to be true college students. That’s the side hustle.
At Boston University, I often chose between studying longer or just going to bed because I had a 6:00 am weightlifting session.
College athletes are essentially unpaid professionals, tasked with keeping high-net-worth coaches employed.
And while this system is now rewarding athletes for their NIL, it will bring about even greater pressure on the athletes and suck up more of their precious time (plus it’s really only helping the top 1% of athletes).
With minimal time for themselves and increased pressure to perform, athletes are told to find ways to take care of themselves and make sure they’re ready, in service of a system that isn’t optimized for their health and welfare — but to keep systems/coaches in place.
Coaching jobs are a networking game. It’s easier to get a job by taking care of your peers than by taking care of the athletes.
But this isn’t 100% the coaches’ “fault.” It’s how the system was built. Coaches are doing what any reasonable person would do - they’re trying to keep their jobs and take care of their families.
The System Is Backwards
The NCAA and the institutional control rules ramped up the pressure on coaches to keep things in-house and under control. Coaches are responsible for ANYTHING that happens in their program, even if they don’t have the resources to manage it effectively.
College coaches are in an incredibly precarious position - learn of something troubling and act — you might get fired. Don’t report, you might get fired.
The athletes pick up on this subconsciously.
So the incentive for athletes is to keep quiet - lest you risk your chances of doing what you love, hurt your coach, hurt your institution, and cause a problem.
The NCAA has tried to position itself as advocating for the welfare of the athletes, but the reality is that healthcare is also designed to keep athletes on the floor - not protect them.
Just look at this chart:
2x more money is being paid out in athletic-related administration and coaches compensation than athletic scholarships.
2x more money is spent on recruiting an athlete to attend a school than the financial worth of medical care they’ll receive over their 4 years.
As I’ve mentioned before — the system is backward in so many ways.
Healthcare in College Sports
Athletic healthcare providers are drastically underpaid and overworked.
At Boston University, we had 5 full-time athletic trainers for roughly 600 student-athletes.
Beyond just rehab, they managed doctor appointments, therapy sessions, and practices, while trying to build relationships with us.
Being a student-athlete at Boston University is no easy task — it’s been rated the hardest grading school in the country by a bunch of major publications.
So as I’m sure you can imagine, that’s a lot of stressed-out young adults trying to manage difficult tasks.
While this experience molded me positively, it can break others:
living by yourself for the first time (and in a major city, Boston)
trying to earn playing time at a Division 1 school
figuring out how to get good grades at a prestigious institution
managing social activities and enjoying college life
handling your parent’s expectations on and off the court
I saw a lot of turnover (especially in the non-revenue sports) as the workload/stress became too overwhelming.
And Boston University is expensive. I wouldn’t dare think of giving up my full ride, but if you played softball and only got a 20% athletic scholarship, the decision wasn’t as painful.
The bottom line is that support staffs around college athletics are burnt out.
They’re tired of trying to fix a system that does 167 hours of damage per week in a 1 hour weekly therapy, rehab, or training session.
That’s not a system that works for the athlete. It’s not a system that keeps athletes safe.
Heck, the coaches at BU had the final say whether someone was playing or not.
Concussion? Family problem? Bad ankle that could be agitated?
Didn’t matter — if the coaches said you were playing…then you were playing, it didn’t matter what the athletic trainers said.
Of course, there’s nuance and depth to all of this, and I’m only scratching the surface here. But the point stands - asking a therapist (or any support staff) to “save” athletes from a broken system isn’t the solution.
The solution is to fix the system.
And with NIL now in the mix, things could get worse before they get better.
Thanks for reading today.
I like to stick to my niche “the business of athletes”, but I’ll always voice my opinion when need be, as that was a promise I made to myself when starting last September.
If you’re interested in reading more, Alex has added some ways to fix the system down below.
You’re blessed. Go have a great day.
A Few Clarifications
It’s important to recognize that most coaches truly value having both healthy and high-performing athletes.
The point above is that the incentives are misaligned, and humans are designed to be responsive to immediate rewards over long-term satisfaction.
It’s easy to miss the long-term goal of creating healthy and high-performing student-athletes when you’re mired in just needing to win on Saturday.
Coaches experience a lot of pressure to win each week — it’s how they put food on the table.
This takes a huge toll on coaches’ mental health and wellness, which also trickles down to athletes.
Administrators similarly have pressures, criticisms, and expectations that are unrealistic — which comes from the need to drive revenue to keep all sports going and keep the athlete experience viable.
At the core of all of this is an unreasonable business proposition.
There is not another industry in the world that would rely on the performance of 17-22-year-old kids for billions of dollars in revenue. Because in most other circumstances, we’d call that a losing proposition (or worse).
The solution to all of this has been more:
more mental health staff
more locker rooms
But just adding people in to try and put a bandaid over a bullet hole isn’t going to stop the bleeding. We need to address the root of the problem - a misaligned system.
Here are some ideas about how we could make college athletics happier, healthier, and safer:
1/ Redistribute power.
Right now the power is concentrated at the top - administrators and coaches. The people responsible for the welfare of athletes face pressure to protect the athletes, keep coaches happy, and take care of themselves.
Instead, we should make health and welfare the central principle of working with athletes. These medical professionals (ATs, MDs, PhDs, Psychs) should be given the autonomy to do their job, without fear of retribution.
This doesn’t require some massive structural realignment or moving a medical system. It requires some re-imagination, redistribution of power, and realignment of missions and priorities.
2/ Certify Coaches
Coaches need some training. And not just training in coaching, but training in:
- health and safety
- learning theory
- skill acquisition
- healthy relationships.
All these topics will reduce their frustration over the long term.
Other countries outside the US require structured, sequenced training to work at the highest levels of sport. In most fields, just having a passion or playing one part doesn’t qualify you to manage a huge team.
We wouldn’t let someone who had surgery become a doctor just because it was interesting to them and they had some past experience with surgery.
We’d require training because it keeps everyone safer and ensures some minimum competencies.
3/ Make Coaching Healthier
We need to help coaches get out of a system that puts pressure on them to constantly be “on.” The current structure is a recipe for disaster - poor emotion regulation, poor decision-making, and poor health outcomes.
Nobody that sleeps 4-6 hours a night and is stressed out all day is feeling or performing their best. They’re also not in a position to ensure others can be their best.
Why do we expect that of coaches?
Instead, incentivize coaches to help mold the best people. Pay them more for graduation rates, fewer injuries, healthier cultures (we can measure that), and higher athlete satisfaction.
4/ Make Sport Sustainable
Athletes don’t live to please the communities they are a part of. They choose a school to be somewhere they like, be a part of a team, and have a good experience.
Money is a part of this system, and we aren’t going to change that. But we can flip the idea that if the athletes are happier and healthier, the “product on the field” will be better.
We’ve seen this model work in business. Southwest is famous for putting employees first. And most people would choose a southwest flight over any other airline, because the experience for the end-user is better and because employees are happier.
Part of making this model sustainable is paying athletes. We need to teach athletes skills they can use for a lifetime.
Instead of looking at pay as a controversial issue, look at it as an educational opportunity.
Teach them how to manage money, budget appropriately, and yes, use their resources to get the support they need, if they don’t believe that support can come from or is coming from their current system.
5/ Rewrite the narrative
Glorifying athletics is fine, but we’ve over-indexed on our expectations of athletes. Athletes are people first and performers second.
They are closely related. But the emphasis on performance for fans, coupled with a hyper-masculine environment, is a recipe for suppression, dejection, and unhappiness. We don’t readily recognize the humanity of athletes or the very real expectations they face.
We need to reward people for coming forward and speaking up - about whatever it is they need to say to make sport safer. That means some uncomfortable conversations for administrators, but that’s what they are there for - to lead and make tough decisions.
Creating an opportunity for people to speak up will put health on a level playing field with performance. Plus, the reality is, that health and performance CAN coexist. And not only that, they can enhance each other.
Instead of being afraid of mental health, we need to invite dialogue so that everyone can be a part of the solution, with a focus not on “getting rid of mental health issues” but on creating a system that encourages flourishing and is open to addressing problems that limit it.
6/ Kill the club
Lastly, we need a system that hires, fires, promotes, punishes, and rewards based on REAL action and results.
Too much happens because someone knows someone - and either they don’t want to punish a friend, or they want to hire someone who isn’t qualified.
This friendship, and the interdependence of relationships, make it hard to address problems. People are afraid to do what’s right because it may impact their employment in the future.
Our most recent example of this is Brian Flores in the NFL, but it happens in college too.
Instead, look at actual accomplishments - like the outcomes we should be measuring that I listed before. You can do that AND win. It is possible to have both.
In fact, I think you’re more likely to win if you make the other outcomes the priority.
1. Redistribute power.
2. Certify coaches.
3. Make coaching healthier.
4. Make sport sustainable.
5. Rewrite the narrative.
6. Kill the club.
These are some small steps we can take to make the college sports system better.
Check out more of Alex Auerbach’s work here.