The State of College Athletics
A system in need of a makeover
On Wednesday evening, after learning of another death by suicide in college athletics, I wrote this thread:
Reading a lot here about how we help college athletes. The conversation is great, and providing more resources for these athletes is a great step.
But we’re missing the forest for the trees.
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 manufacturing businesses, the model is designed to increase production and, through that increased production, revenue.
The way the system has optimized to produce revenue is to give power to coaches - just like other big businesses. Managers are given the power to build their teams, and have to live with the consequences of the performance. The same is true for coaches.
The coaches are largely incentivized to keep their job through production on the field/court. Consider, for example, the difference in bonus sizes for their programs having high GPAs versus competing for a championship. The monetary difference is considerable.
Further, coaches are rarely kept on because they graduate great students. They’re retained because they’re winning. And if they don’t win, they’re fired - even if EVERY OTHER OUTCOME is good.
So now we have a structure where the most important thing isn’t what happens in the roughly 164 hours/week outside of the game in the lives of the athletes. It’s the 2-4 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?
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, time around the sport, and then getting ready to compete from coaches. Athletes don’t have time to be college students. They’re essentially unpaid professionals, tasked with keeping a millionaire employed.
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 - it’s optimized to keep systems/coaches in place.
But some coaches struggle to do this in a way that’s healthy for athletes. And some coaches don’t know if what they’re doing or not is okay, because there is ZERO coaching education or certification required to coach in college athletics. Coaching jobs are a networking game.
This network keeps things “in the family.” That model of protecting your own leads to a culture of silence and blind loyalty. Not doing what’s right for the athlete, but protecting your own. It’s easier to get a job by taking care of your peers than taking care of athletes.
But this problem isn’t 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 NCAA and the institutional control rules ramped up the pressure on coaches to keep things in house, under wraps, and under control. Coaches are responsible for ANYTHING that happens in their program, even if they don’t have the training necessary to manage it effectively.
That’s a bad position to be in. 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 university wants to manage exposure to risk.
The athletes pick up on this. They all want to compete and be the best they can be. But rather than invite a nuanced discussion of what athletes need to do that, the system basically wants them to just fall in line and make it work for the coaches, rather than “hurt the team.”
So the incentive for athletes is to keep quiet - lest you hurt 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.
If it was to protect them, coaches wouldn’t be able to bring in whoever they want - instead, the institution would seek out the most competent provider, and prioritize quality healthcare. But that’s not how it works.
In some respects, that’s fine - college athletics doesn’t need to be a full-blown hospital, when done right. But it does need a realistic expectation of healthcare providers.
Athletics healthcare providers are drastically underpaid and overworked. Anyone in that situation is not going to perform their best and feel their best. That’s part of why there’s an unspoken mass exodus from college athletics right now in athlete-facing positions.
The people 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 session, or a 1 hour rehab session, or a 1 hour training session. That’s not a system that works for the athlete.
It’s not a system that keeps athletes safe.
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 f*ck*ed up system isn’t the solution. The solution is to fix the system. n, or a 1 hour rehab session, or a 1 hour training session. That’s not a system that works for the athlete.
This thread was in response to a lot of what I was reading in the aftermath of a horrendous several weeks in college athletics, calling for more psychologists and therapists (yes) but not looking to hold the system accountable.
Of course, Twitter threads have their limitations - so I wanted to inject some of the nuances I couldn’t fit in here. There’s plenty more we can say.
It’s important to recognize that most coaches do 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.
I know because I’ve been there - I was a coach before I became a psychologist, and experienced first-hand the pressure to win each week before anything else.
This takes a huge toll on coaches’ mental health and wellness, which also trickles down to athletes. Our coaches are NOT okay. Many of them who came up through sport themselves experienced problematic coaching, didn’t learn to take care of themselves, and now exist in a system that doesn’t prioritize welfare but instead winning “at all costs.” The pressure, criticism, schedule, and more all greatly impact coaches’ mental health, which makes it much more challenging to respond to the needs of others in the system.
These pressures also have a great deal to do with administration and the pressures they are managing - which comes from the need to drive revenue to keep all sports going and keep the athlete experience viable. Administrators similarly have pressures, criticisms, and expectations that are unrealistic. And they too have concerns related to mental health.
At the core of all of this is an absolutely 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 people, more trainers, more mental health staff, more buildings, more locker rooms, more food. 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 actually address the root of the problem - a misaligned system.
I wrote some of my ideas about how to do that, too:
I appreciate the response to last night’s thread about the college athletics system.
In the spirit of not just raising issues and then moving on, I want to propose some solutions.
Here are some ideas about how we could make college athletics happier, healthier, and safer:
1/ Redistribute power.
Right now the power is concentrated the top - administrators and coaches. The people responsible for the welfare of athletes face pressures 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 just 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 - for a reason. In most fields, just having a passion or having played one part doesn’t qualify you to manage a huge team.
We wouldn’t let someone who had surgery done to them 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 is 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, 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 some 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 actually 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, 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, makes 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 last is Brian Flores in the NFL, but it happens in college too.
Instead, look at real 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 just small steps we can take to make it better. But, if we want to see real impact, asking a few people to do more isn’t the answer. We have to change the system.