Academics vs. Athletics: Shining the Spotlight on Incentives

Academics vs. Athletics: Shining the Spotlight on Incentives

Shining the spotlight on incentives for college coaches and athletic directors reveals more than winning and losing.

This has been quite a summer of change for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

In just the past month or so, the NCAA has granted the “Big 5” athletic conferences (PAC-12, Big 10, Big 12, ACC and SEC) autonomy to govern themselves on issues such as student-athlete stipends, length of scholarships and staff sizes. The NCAA has settled two lawsuits for a combined $90 million and was ruled to have violated antitrust laws in the Ed O’Bannon case. At the same time, college athletics also has had to deal with student-athlete academic issues at the University of North Carolina and the University of Notre Dame.

Coinciding with these events, a recent trend gaining momentum is placing the spotlight on contract incentives for NCAA Division I athletic directors and head coaches.

As researchers, my colleagues and I have spent a great deal of time analyzing hundreds of college athletic directors and head coaches’ contracts obtained from USA Today databases. Our analyses focus on incentive clauses in those contracts for team’s athletic and academic performances. We have consistently found head coaches in football and men’s/women’s basketball to have more athletic team performance-based incentives (conference championships, postseason play, national championship and postseason final rankings) than academic incentives (team student academic progress rate, graduation success rate and GPA).

In football, for example, University of Florida head coach Will Muschamp’s highest potential athletic team performance incentive is $250,000 for winning a national championship. However, his signed 2010 contract did not contain a clearly defined academic team performance bonus. At Florida State, Jimbo Fisher’s highest potential athletic team performance incentive is $125,000 for winning a national championship, which he earned last year. His highest potential academic team performance bonus is $25,000 for the team achieving at least a 75 percent graduation success rate (GSR) each year.

These results may not appear surprising. College coaches are hired to win games because this brings publicity, prestige and revenue to the institution. At the same time, the disparity between athletic and academic incentives is starting to receive more attention by state and federal officials.

In April 2014, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to discuss the status of college athletics. During the conversation, he offered his opinion that college coaches’ contracts are too focused on athletic incentives and instead need to be more tied to academic team performance.

Our analysis of 2009 and 2012 men’s and women’s basketball head coaches’ contracts found that University of Connecticut’s former head basketball coach, Jim Calhoun, had his athletic team performance incentives contingent upon the team meeting certain academic benchmarks. Unfortunately, this clause is not the norm in college contracts.

Secretary Duncan, at least, may have sparked movement on the issue.

In August 2014, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsome sent letters to the CEOs of the University of California and the California State University system, calling for the state’s public university athletic director jobs to be more connected to the academic performance of its athletes.

“Athletic directors’ contracts should stipulate aggressive benchmarks for improvement in graduation and academic progress rates or face termination, period,” said Newsome, according to USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz. “We’re not incentivizing academics. We’re incentivizing athleticism.”

If implemented, this stipulation could set a precedent for college contracts.

Yet, we need to proceed with caution when tying student-athlete academic performance with athletic administrators’ and head coaches’ compensation. If job security is tied to the academic success of 18- to 22-year-olds, we may witness the unintended consequence of student-athletes being funneled into “easier” majors to stay eligible instead of allowing student-athletes the
opportunity to pursue their degrees of choice.

A challenging playing field all the way around. Editor’s note: Matt Wilson, Ed.D., is associate professor of Sport Business at Stetson University [].