Note: The following article was published in Trusteeship magazine on October 13, 2015: In the September/October issue of Trusteeship, John Gerdy, a former all-American basketball player who served as associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, asks, “Artists, Athletes, and Governing Boards: Who Plays and Who Wins?” Below is an exceprt that focuses on institutional branding and athletics.
Many colleges and universities have long considered football an effective vehicle through which to build and strengthen their institutional brand. But here’s a question that every board member must consider: How do you build and enhance the brand of an educational institution by sponsoring, as a central component of your branding strategy, an activity that an increasing amount of research tells us is profoundly dangerous for student participants?
Boards should be cautious that, at some point, the evidence of the debilitating effects of football participation will become so clear, and the physical costs so great, public perception of colleges and universities that are willing to “sacrifice” students in the name of financial gain and branding purposes may shift. If institutions of higher education are so cavalier with the long-term health of their football athletes, what is to say that they won’t be similarly cavalier regarding the education, health, and well-being of all its students? Given the public’s increasing skepticism of the value of a college education in today’s world, another example of higher education being more about business and branding than education could come at great cost.
In fact, for an institution that is looking to significantly advance its educational brand, a case can be made that eliminating football shows far more educational vision, courage, and responsibility. Such a decision will help educational leadership get out ahead of what will be, despite the denials of the “football industrial complex,” a steady increase in the public’s distaste for a game that, while certainly entertaining, is intensely brutal and physically debilitating for students.