Through the last few years of the NCAA's academic reform movement, President Myles Brand has repeatedly called on the association's critics — shorthand for alienated faculty and sensational media — to "get their facts right." NCAA athletes are graduating at a higher rate than many give them credit for. The majority, Brand says, embody academic success stories that are overshadowed by tales of the few quarterbacks passing on degrees for million-dollar professional contracts.
Brand's discussion of facts has intrigued the fact gatherers, the scholars who conduct research on college sport. What about all the data they've already collected in a field expanding in scope and reputation? Can true research be either pro- or anti-NCAA? And how would Brand define those two categories as he implores everyone to get things "right"?
"There are a lot of things to do research on if you're in any field at a university," said Jay Coakley, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "To pick intercollegiate sports is to kind of walk around a minefield."
To conduct research on college sports is, sometimes, to ask uncomfortable questions that affect NCAA officials, big-money boosters, popular coaches who influence public opinion, and the university leaders who employ you and their revenue-producing athletic department. All of them can question your work and, more fundamentally, your reputation.
"So why do that," Coakley asked, "when I can do research on 50 other things?"
Brand announced two years ago that, consistent with his challenge, he wanted to hold a scholarly colloquium on college sports. The NCAA sent out a call for papers. Richard Southall, then a professor at the University of Memphis, was one of those asked to serve on the colloquium's review board.
When months later he never received anything to review — or a response to his own submitted work — he called the NCAA. It turned out the colloquium had been postponed because, as Brand later told Inside Higher Ed, the papers he had received "were not of the quality one would expect for a scholarly conference."
"If you think about it, the academic credibility of everybody who submitted to that conference was impugned by that statement," Southall said. "My inkling is he didn't like what he saw."
Southall decided he and other researchers would simply start their own forum. In April, the College Sport Research Institute, soon to be housed at the University of North Carolina, held its first conference in Memphis. The first edition of the group's annual Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics is now online.
Southall stresses that the CSRI is neither a reform group nor a policy institute. It is, instead, designed to support empirical research, without agenda, on economic, political and socio-cultural issues around college athletics.
In January, the NCAA also finally held its postponed symposium. The event was organized by a new advisory group of faculty, the Forum for the Scholarly Study of Intercollegiate Athletics in Higher Education, which is also releasing the first edition of its new journal, the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, this month.
The creation of both consortiums — one with formal ties to the NCAA, one without — highlights the complications of the field but also the growing status of a research specialty long considered the toy department of college campuses.
"Sport-related research is coming of age," said Scott Kretchmar, chairman of the NCAA advisory group and editor of its journal, as well as a sport philosopher in the kinesiology department at Penn State University (a job title he admits is a conversation-stopper on airplanes). "We used to hide and try not to tell people who we were because we're sort of low on the totem pole. 'What do you study? Sport and play and games? Really, we study that here at Penn State?'"
Now, though, some skepticism comes from within the field.
The NCAA has provided what Kretchmar describes as a startup grant for the advisory group and its journal. The association, he said, has no editorial review over the journal, and no controlling hand in the research or colloquiums. The NCAA is, in essence, funding a group of researchers striving to be as independent from the NCAA as possible. So what's in it for Brand's association?
"It's not meant to be guided by the NCAA and controlled by the NCAA," said Todd Petr, the NCAA's managing director of research. "But I would say the NCAA is trying to encourage people to do this kind of work. The more data you have, the more national in scope it is, the broader the look, the more information that you have to create policy."
The NCAA, Petr said, is encouraging a balanced look at the "complete story," and Brand's belief is that while not all of the story is good, most of it is. And good research will reveal that.
Existing research certainly paints contrasting sides of the complete story. One NCAA study of incoming athletes in 1994 showed that more than a decade later, 88 percent of those surveyed eventually received their degree, a figure considerably higher than graduation rates that don't consider transfer students.
A recent CSRI study, on a different front, found that 99 percent of non-game-specific content (including commercials) during football Bowl Championship Series broadcasts in 2007 wasn't educational in nature at all.
Is one of those studies biased? If a scholar's research poses critical questions, is it fair to say that researcher is a critic of college sports? Separating the two — the motives of the researcher and the outcome of the study — has been the challenge.
Kretchmar hopes to prove that his group will also pursue thorny topics. The 2009 symposium (which, unlike its 2008 predecessor, includes an open call for papers) is scheduled around a fundamentally controversial question: Is excellence in sport compatible with good health?
The discussion, Kretchmar said, will include some "politically incorrect" data about the physiological differences between male and female athletes — a taboo subject in the context of Title IX's equal-opportunity mandates.
Members of the CSRI are waiting to see if Kretchmar's group will really have uncensored license, just as Myles Brand is waiting to see if research like that at the CSRI is truly conducted without agenda.
"We learned back in the day when the tobacco industry was doing research on cancer that maybe they weren't the ones to be doing that kind of research," Southall said. "That's not to say the NCAA is the evil empire, that's not it at all. But I don't think they can do objective research on college sport because they are college sport."
Kretchmar counters that there is nothing novel about objective research funded by an interested third party.
"But it's incumbent upon people who take the money, like myself, that we put firewalls in place," he said, "and no one can say, 'You've been bought by the NCAA because you're taking their money.'"