Some things never change, but don't forget the "firsts"

Some Things Never Change (but take time to appreciate the “firsts!”)

I read a lot about sports. It’s one of the many benefits of being a college athletic director—stories that interest me are often very helpful in my professional growth, development, and continued education. And they’re fun! After all, I’m a sports fan with the privilege of earning a living working in the sports world. Earlier this week, I came across a very interesting article on the role of money and power in college sports. This article repeatedly addressed the supposed evils of college sports, the contradiction of “big time” college sports and academics. It was a very interesting and well written article about the state of college sports today, except it wasn’t. IT WAS FROM 1905! Here’s the link if you’re interested.

It’s easy to look at college sports today with a critical eye – coaches earning millions of dollars per year, multi-million dollar television contracts, “one and done” athletes…all at institutions supposedly committed to an educational purpose. But, as with any institution, organization, or group, it’s always easy to criticize when you’re looking in from the outside. You never have all of the facts, there’s no pressure on you, and you aren’t the one who bears ultimate responsibility. It’s easy to make decisions when you don’t have to deal with the results.

I have many friends and colleagues who are coaches and athletic directors at the Division I level. They are genuine folks who want the best for their student-athletes. They want them to graduate, they want them to be successful. But at that level, there is also a business aspect, and you can’t ignore that side of college sports. Those folks also run their departments like a business, and are forced to make business decisions.

My intent is not to make an argument in favor of one side or the other, but the article from 1905 makes a great point – it’s all about perspective. What seemed extravagant in 1905 would be a welcome change for many folks today when it comes to major college sports. I’m fortunate at King -- while there is a business aspect to my job and that of our coaches, we are able to keep our primary focus on the student-athlete experience, and make our decisions in the best interests of student-athletes.

Anytime an issue arises with a student-athlete, I consider the issue within in the context of the best interests of the student-athletes. Our coaches do the same. The framework for our decision-making process is always the best interest of the student-athlete. The challenges arise when the “best interests” is not clearly visible or easily defined.

We recently had a conversation amongst the athletic directors in our conference about conference championships. What provides the best experience for our student-athletes, playing championships on campus, or at neutral sites? Neutral sites give the advantage of having multiple teams at the tournament, a unique experience for student-athletes playing in an arena or stadium different from regular season games, and the possibility of recognition banquets, dinners, and other associated activities at the championships.

That format provides a great experience for student-athletes, but is it better than the alternative? Do those experiences trump the experience of playing in a conference championship game in front of several hundred of your rowdy, passionate friends on your campus? I don’t know the answer to that question, and it was an interesting conversation we will continue to have at the conference level. I can tell you that I am very excited about the Conference Carolinas Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships coming up this March. The Final Four will offer student-athletes to play in the Cabarrus County Arena outside of Charlotte, an incredible pre-championship banquet at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, complete with tours and the opportunity to ride in the NASCAR simulators, and the opportunity for media coverage and exposure they may otherwise miss. I sincerely hope both of our teams advance to the Final Four, because I want them to win, but also because I want our student-athletes to engage in the overall experience at the championships.

At the same time, when our women’s volleyball team advanced to the conference championship game this fall, it was played on campus at Belmont Abbey. Even though we didn’t come through with a win, it was an amazing experience for our student-athletes.  The gym was packed with Abbey students, as well as a strong contingent of King students and fans who made the drive. The atmosphere was amazing, and while I was disappointed we didn’t win, it was great for the Belmont Abbey student-athletes to celebrate their victory in front of their friends and peers.

Which is the better experience for student-athletes? I don’t have the answer, both sides have positives and negatives, and it continues to be an interesting debate. What I do know is that the debate will center around the best experience for our student-athletes, and not about revenue, sponsorship, or ticket sales.  And that’s the way I like it.

What’s the student-athlete experience like at King right now? Well, if you like new experiences and new levels of success, I’d say the past few weeks and coming weeks equate to an incredible experience for our student-athletes.

January 24-25, our women’s wrestling team won their first WCWA National Championship in a thrilling victory that included four individual national champions and two runners-up. On Wednesday, we had the privilege of recognizing them in front of a large crowd of their friends and supporters at the Student Center during our basketball games against Erskine. That provided a great experience for them, the opportunity to stand in front of their friends and celebrate their achievement.

On Sunday, our acrobatics and tumbling team will take the mat for the first time, as one of 11 acrobatics and tumbling programs nationwide. The team leaves Saturday for Adrian College in Michigan, and will compete in King’s first acrobatics and tumbling meet. The team performed at halftime of the men’s game on Wednesday night as a warm-up for Sunday, and received a roaring ovation from a crowd who saw the sport for the first time. The following Sunday, February 16, we’ll host our first home acro meet, and I can’t wait! What are you doing on the 16th if you’re not coming out to the Student Center!??!

We had another “first” earlier today, as our softball team defeated our first ranked opponent in our NCAA era, knocking off No. 25 Columbus State by a 2-0 score to the open the season. I’m confident that will be the “first” of many!!

Those “firsts” are exciting, but at King we’re committed to a great student-athlete experience. We enjoy the “firsts” and pride ourselves in being proactive and passionately pursuing excellence. Great student-athlete experiences start with those “firsts” and we’re looking forward to more championships, more acro meets, and more wins over ranked teams!

Ecclesiastes 1:9 says “there is nothing new under the sun.” In 1905, there were folks who thought college sports had lost their focus and become contrary to the educational mission of colleges and universities. One hundred nine years later, that debate carries on, and it will continue as long as there are college sports.  In 2014, King embodies the same principles regarding athletics from years past in our strong traditions – we’re all about the student-athlete. And that tradition will carry on as well.