Intercollegiate sports have provided success stories, fan excitement, substantial college revenues, and character building experiences to many young athletes.  However, when I look at the news with each passing month, it is obvious that there are a wide range of systemic problems present that are not getting any better with time.  Institutions break league rules and we only see the few that get caught; coaches may receive exemplary marks on performance and later be found to be running shocking and abusive programs; and athlete off-the-field performance has been highlighted by extreme cases of misconduct which have included nightmarish hazing cultures, rape, and murder.

With these issues present, why aren’t all institutions making moves to proactively create Ombuds Offices, especially those specialized to deal with athletics issues?  Obviously, it takes time, commitment, and buy-in at a variety of levels within a university to take a step like this.  However, if most institutions really wanted to create specialized Ombuds Offices, they definitely could.  So, why aren’t more of them at least making moves toward this goal?  Do they think that the cost is too great to staff an Ombudsman or are they perhaps fearful of having an outside consultant or an Ombudsman around?

Is It Money Or Fear?

Obviously every institution is different.  As far as cost is concerned, it’s tough to calculate the exact cost savings of an Ombuds Program, as you can’t calculate the cost of a calamity that didn’t happen because it was averted by having an Ombudsman.  Regardless, there have been studies that show significant return on investment created by Ombuds Programs.  However, if I were to take a guess, I don’t think money is the issue at all, as most NCAA schools should know by now that the cost of one major conflict can be worth an Ombudsman’s yearly salary one hundred times over.  Instead, I would have to say that most programs don’t fully understand the benefits of having an Ombudsman, and from history we all know that people generally fear what they do not understand.  They also may see the addition of an Ombudsman as a loss of control.  For example, when an outside evaluator comes in to evaluate a program, there is generally something called “evaluator anxiety” that is experienced.  Staff and executives wonder if they are being judged and if their positions will be at risk after a “nosy” evaluator makes their report.  Likewise, perhaps some Athletics Personnel think an Ombudsman may scrutinize their actions and pose a threat to their positions. This is definitely the wrong way to think about an Ombudsman though.

Ombuds Protect Athletics Personnel From Making Mistakes

Athletics Personnel must see the Ombudsman as a resource and even a way to protect them from making costly mistakes.  For instance, if an athlete comes to a coach about a problem they are experiencing, the coach is now put on notice and has the weight of making the right chain of decisions to see that this problem is resolved properly or brought to the right audience.  Perhaps the institution already has a wonderfully designed system for dealing with conflict.  Bravo!  However, every situation is different, complaints can be indirect or ambiguous at times, and coaches and other staff may either not have the time to deal with them or lack the expertise needed to do so.  On the other hand, if a complaint is brought to an Ombudsman, the coach is not put on notice and does not bear the weight of now making the right chain of decisions to see that the complaint is given the right attention.  Thus, you have a professional office now dealing with the complaint, which can save a coach, staff member, or athletic director from getting in the stressful position of knowing that a single mistake in their handling of a complaint might later put them in the hot seat.  If you look at it this way, having an Ombudsman around helps most members of the Athletic Department protect themselves from making damning errors in the process of dealing with conflicts.

Ombuds Benefit Everyone

Overall, an Ombudsman is a resource for all stakeholders, is confidential, impartial, and can provide a university with continued non-attributable reports on the issues dealt with, so that decision makers can correct systemic areas of concern and create new policies and procedures designed to mitigate or resolve those concerns.  So, again, why aren’t all NCAA schools actively looking to create Ombuds Offices?  I believe it can be summed up with one word, “fear.”  This is a fear of the unknown and unfamiliar Ombudsman and a fear of not having absolute control over problems that arise.  However, I would argue that having a third party to take the lead in conflict should be thought of by decision makers as a godsend.  Not only can an Ombudsman protect them from making costly mistakes in dealing with conflict, they can also help alleviate much of the stress that regular conflicts place on athletics personnel, freeing them up to focus more time on other aspects of their jobs.  Thus, while much of the talk about Ombuds programs focuses on protecting athletes, decision makers must also realize that Ombuds programs are a benefit to everyone, including themselves.

Getting Past Fear And Being Proactive

No program is immune from conflict.  Even the best managed programs have occasional problems that make the evening news.  With the issues present in Intercollegiate Athletics today, institutions must press for proactive, continual improvements through regular assessment and employment of conflict-trained personnel such as Ombudsmen.  Decision makers need to look around and realize that if they are not proactively seeking help to take regular, measured, strategic, and knowledgeable steps toward mitigating and managing conflict within their programs, they are failing to protect the entire student body, the staff, the university they represent, and ultimately themselves.  Hopefully more NCAA programs will begin to realize that these risks are reason enough to get over their fears and begin taking steps to create an Ombuds Office at their university.

Author: Jeff Sather