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NCAA’s Strategic Plan Lacked Emphasis on Key Challenges

Ten years ago, the NCAA began work on a new strategic plan that, among other things, sought to identify potential hurdles the association might face over the next five to 10 years.

I came across the plan this week while reading through a set of guidelines the NCAA recently distributed for a survey that will help redesign its top division.

The plan, which was finalized in 2004 and was to be reviewed every year thereafter, included smart insight about the changing landscape of higher education, including predictions of declining government support, the rise of online education, and demographic shifts that could affect athletics participation.

The document accurately predicted many of the challenges that institutions would face. Among them were the difficulty of enforcing drug and safety violations, sagging game attendance, and worries over the increasing need to spend institutional dollars to prop up athletics.

But I was struck by the NCAA’s inability to anticipate how significant its forthcoming legal and public-relations challenges would be—particularly high-profile cases involving player rights and concussions, and the negative publicity that would surround them.

And for all the talk about declining government support and pressures on athletic departments to raise (and spend) more money, there was no focus on conference realignment or the disruption that such moves would bring.

The document acknowledges that the NCAA could see more litigation “if stakeholders perceive that elements of the college athletics structure are not fair.” On the regulatory side, the plan singles out gender discrimination and affirmative-action issues as the most noteworthy challenges. (I’m not slighting those complaints, but, as a recently introduced bill in Congress shows, there were other potentially disconcerting issues to be considered.)

In a number of places, the NCAA’s strategic plan mentions the growing pressures on students, such as demands on their schedules and difficulties of paying for college. It also notes that “the public may become increasingly concerned about the treatment of student-athletes.” (It’s pretty clear the NCAA got that one right.)

There’s no way the association could have predicted the coming wave of scandals that would fracture the public’s trust in big-time college sports. But that certainly made it difficult for the NCAA to realize this goal, which was listed on the last page of the plan:

The public will gain a greater understanding of and confidence in the integrity of intercollegiate athletics and will more readily support its values.

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