Will Anti-NCAA Rhetoric Kill Association’s Academic Conference?

In recent weeks, organizers of the NCAA’s Scholarly Colloquium got what some consider to be a brushback pitch: At least one top NCAA executive has not been happy with the tone of recent conferences and raised questions about whether the association would continue to back the event. (I write about the story in more detail here.)

On November 7, David K. Wiggins, a professor at George Mason University and chair of the colloquium’s Executive Board, sent an e-mail to fellow board members alerting them to his worries about the event’s future.

In the e-mail, Mr. Wiggins said that several top NCAA administrators apparently were concerned that the last couple of forums had “primarily included ideologues intent on criticizing the NCAA.” As a result, one top NCAA leader told him, the colloquium “runs the risk of no longer being funded,” Mr. Wiggins wrote.

Mr. Wiggins based his concerns on two extensive conversations with Wallace I. Renfro, the NCAA’s top policy adviser, he said in the e-mail.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Renfro said that in those conversations he was speaking for himself, not the association, and that he hoped the colloquium would continue as a platform where multiple views were presented. (The next colloquium, which features the work of 70 scholars, is scheduled to be held in January, in conjunction with the NCAA’s annual convention.)

For Mr. Renfro, the problems seemed to start at last year’s event, where he didn’t see a variety of perspectives.

“I was hearing virtually one voice being sung by a number of people … and it was relatively critical of the NCAA’s academic-reform effort,” Mr. Renfro says. “I don’t care whether it was critical or not, but I care about whether there are different perspectives presented.”

After looking at some of the titles of the research to be presented in January, he became concerned that the conference was beginning to look ideological.

“If you lose the capacity for this platform to be a dialogue in which there is an opportunity to present a position and respond to that, it isn’t a colloquium any longer,” he said. “Some might call it a rant.”

There’s no question that certain scholars who have spoken at recent colloquia have been highly critical of the NCAA. But organizers of the event have worked hard to make sure that it was never one-sided, says Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science at Pennsylvania State University. He collaborated with Myles Brand, the former NCAA president, to help start the colloquium, and has been involved ever since.

“I promised Myles that we would always present a balanced view and we wouldn’t just go after the harsh critics,” he told me on Monday. “And I promised that we would get legitimate scholars, not just people would have a burr under their saddle and were going after the NCAA without the facts.

“What is non-negotiable for the board is scholarly credibility,” he added. “The forum would go to pot if Wally were right and we just gave the podium to rants and people who made irrational claims.”

That message may not be getting through to top NCAA leaders. According to e-mails Mr. Wiggins exchanged with James L. Isch, the NCAA’s chief operating officer, the NCAA has had several internal conversations about the colloquium and its future, and plans to meet sometime on or after December 10 to consider its fate.

In a message dated November 26, Mr. Isch wrote to Mr. Wiggins that “we are looking to reinvest the colloquium dollars into more directed research.”

On Sunday, Mr. Wiggins said he didn’t have a good feeling about where things are headed. “I do not doubt for a minute that we will find out very shortly that we will no longer exist after [next] year,” he said. “And I think that would be a shame because we serve a valuable purpose.”

But if the colloquium goes on, he fears that the NCAA will never be happy. “There will always be criticism of the organization, and some tension,” he said. “We just have different purposes.”

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