OPINION: NCAA Head Coaches Need to Replace Authority and Control with Trust and Support

Dr. Robert Greim is the Associate AD for Compliance and Student Services at a Division I institution, an adjunct professor of Higher Education Administration, and manager of SPC Athletics Consulting.

As a long-overdue paradigm shift regarding the student-athlete voice envelops the most high-profile yet taboo culture in higher education, three outdated mantras within college athletics must change. 

The following three traditions in major college sports have allowed the control of head coaches to expand unchallenged for generations:

  1. What happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room.
  2. Students should place the needs of the team ahead of their own.
  3. The chain of command goes through the head coach. 

Having worked on campus in Division I Athletics for over twenty-five years, I can attest that the culture of some teams within an athletics department is often autocratically controlled by the head coach.

While an expert in the strategy of his or her sport, these individuals are often not formally educated in the mental, emotional, or psychological development of 18- to 23-year-old adults. 

Unfortunately, some head coaches have allowed their justified authority related to play calling and game management to expand unjustifiably into controlling all aspects of the student-athlete’s experience, including their voice. 

Student-athletes and support staff have been indoctrinated into believing these three mantras with blind faith.

The desire of student-athletes to publicly support Black Lives Matter or express their concern about COVID-19 runs contrary to the concepts of keeping such concerns within the locker room, placing the collective team goals ahead of their personal welfare, and getting the permission of the head coach before speaking out.  

Moreover, many head coaches might not have lived experiences like those of their student-athletes. According to the Demographic Database on NCAA.org (http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/ncaa-demographics-database), 80 percent of head coaches across all sports in 2019 identified as White, compared to only 56 percent of student-athletes. In the revenue sports of football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball, the disparity is even greater.

As such, it is important for athletics administrators to support and guide these coaches who have been placed in a position of disproportionate influence through the process of evolving their team culture into one of support rather than rule.        

What can be done?

In 2016, member institutions in the five autonomy conferences recognized the need to ensure that appropriate medical care and authority exists in areas related to student-athlete well-being.

For their 65 schools, they voted into the conditions and obligations of membership, a forced deference to health care professionals when deciding on an injured student-athlete’s return to play.

Initially, any school not in an autonomy conference could choose whether or not to apply that same requirement. Then, four years later, the membership voted to require all Division I schools to comply with that legislation.

The new regulation essentially removed the influence of head coaches from these situations.

This has caused coaches to relinquish some level of control and, instead, trust the decisions of experts from a field outside their own.

According to the Division I Manual (https://www.ncaapublications.com/p-4577-2019-2020-ncaa-division-i-manual-august-version-available-for-presell-now.aspx):

An active member institution shall establish an administrative structure that provides independent medical care and affirms the unchallengeable autonomous authority of primary athletics health care providers (team physicians and athletic trainers) to determine medical management and return-to-play decisions related to student-athletes.

Such a paradigm shift of placing authority in appropriate figures other than a head coach is necessary to allow student-athletes to address off-field issues with appropriate campus and community personnel.

Over the past decade, we have seen the harm to student-athletes and their non-athletics peers when a department attempts to keep in-house a hazing incident, a Title IX violation, or a race-driven concern.

These matters, which are likely outside the scope of the head coach’s expertise, need to be addressed by the appropriate professionals with full support of the head coach.

Athletics administrators should encourage head coaches to again trust the qualified professionals rather than attempt to control every aspect of the student experience.

Head coaches (and all administrators, for that matter) should be supported and encouraged to admit their shortcomings and acknowledge that they can be wrong.

By revealing this vulnerability, they indicate to their student-athletes that everyone has room for personal growth and that all members of the team, including student-athletes, have wisdom which can help the coach through this journey.

This transparent discussion is particularly important for those head coaches whose teams are composed of a disproportionately high number of Black student-athletes, especially if the coach is not yet intimately familiar with the societal struggles faced by the students.

Institutions can hire more coaches and administrators who have lived experiences similar to the student-athletes.

In cases where a pool is lacking such candidates, consider giving more weight to those who have studied or participated in social justice causes.

During the interview process, hiring committees can devote more time to discussing with each candidate their understanding of student development theory and the challenges of underrepresented populations. These new hires will see their role as an advocate rather than a boss. 

Departments should encourage coaches to be involved in campus activism and committees outside the department.

Athletics Directors have an obligation to continually help their subordinates grow in their competencies. Professional development for head coaches should include such curriculum and not be limited to only offensive and defensive strategies.

Such training might instill an awareness of student-athletes’ concerns of which a head coach might not previously have been aware. It might be even more beneficial to all involved if student-athletes can attend such training alongside the head coach.

When it comes to Black student-athletes and their teammate allies, it is not appropriate for this highly visible, yet frequently silent population to continue to bite their tongue. Head coaches and athletics administrators should be the first to empower the student-athlete voice and they can begin by retiring the outdated mantras of days past. 

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