ITA CEO Tim Russell Responds to AthleticDirectorU

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Ashley Lahey of Pepperdine Women's Tennis is congratulated by Tim Russell, CEO of the ITA, after winning the 2019 St. Francis All-American Championships women's single match. (photo: Jacob Dye/ITA Staff)

While attempting to offer a provocative thought piece in a challenging environment, Dr. Stephen Dittmore’s article More Universities May Need to Eliminate Sports, And That Would Be Bad For The USOPC. But Should It Matter? chose to make, in my opinion, some overly simplistic and extreme arguments that hold the potential for causing lasting damage to many healthy college sports. I will choose to provide Dr. Dittmore, who I met for the first time on Friday, April 10th when we visited by phone, the benefit of the doubt in trusting that he had good intentions in furthering a conversation regarding the role of Olympic sports on college campuses, and how the NCAA and United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee must find better common ground, as stated in his final paragraph.

Even if, in fact, his motivations were pure, I will suggest that, sadly, the more likely outcome of  the very unfortunate case he attempted to make so forcefully is that otherwise robust college sports, like tennis, may now be considered for elimination on college campuses in the short term, while Rome burns and the NCAA and USOPC converse. Tennis, for example, is a highly competitive global sport, which joins soccer and basketball as one of the three most popular sports played widely around the world. Tennis has been cited as, “Probably the world’s most universal sport, being in the top 7 sports in every single country measured and a major sport of interest in Asia, Europe, Australasia, Latin and North America.”

In the past five years college tennis has been strengthened, in large part due to the hard work in partnership between the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), of which I am the Chief Executive Officer, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the governing body of tennis in America, and the NCAA.

Please allow me to suggest that the sensationalism of some of the tennis illustrations were offered with incomplete and misleading information, and to the detriment of 1,700 college tennis programs played on 1,200 college campuses with nearly 20,000 student athletes as guided by 3,000 coaches and supported by 1,500 college tennis officials.

Daniel Cukierman of USC Men’s Tennis is interviewed by ESPN Sportscaster Steve Weissman at the 2019 Oracle ITA Masters. (photo: Jacob Dye/ITA Staff)

I would respectfully further suggest that while timely in attempting to address the ramifications of economic challenges, the AthleticDirectorU post should still have addressed as a starting point the true role of sports on college campuses and not simply the what if’s of a downward spiral of financial dominos, starting with a sad and unnecessary premise that schools must, or should, or may have to eliminate sports now. Possibly some see an inevitable “need to cut” default position such as this, under the current circumstances, as a clever way to downsize DI college athletics. I am hoping that wise leaders will reject knee jerk reactions and avoid such simplistic options and try instead to use this crisis as an opportunity to truly best position college sports for the future. Yes, there are necessary course corrections to be made. But, now should be a time for the opposite “calls,” clarion cries not to eliminate sports and not to take away playing opportunities. Athletic directors and college presidents should actually make a pledge to avoid such cuts at this time and commit to structural reconfigurations of the entire athletic enterprise and not simply use these circumstances to make quick fixes while leaving the flawed fundamental business structure in place. Let me suggest that history will not be kind to those who might kill off Olympic sports on college campuses.

I encourage others to join me in making a real plea to use this opportunity to stem the tide of the nuclear arms race of football and basketball that has led to eight and nine million dollar football coaching salaries and two million dollar salaries for assistant football coaches that have become the foundation for the unstable business model that is Power 5 athletics.

The purposes of this response are as follow:

  1. Hopefully offer a voice of reason, historical and philosophical perspective, and reality as well as some hope, but not false hope, as hope is not a strategy, within turbulent times;
  2. To reaffirm the true roles of athletics within the American higher education enterprise, to keep “college” first in the phrase college athletics and “student” first in the phrase student-athlete, as Arizona State University President Michael Crow suggested to me when I took my current job five years ago;
  3. To call on the non-revenue sports to be part of the solution, to use this opportunity to propose new and different business models for our sports that assist athletic directors and presidents in dealing with the new financial reality in order to preserve the rich traditions and values of a wide array of athletic activities on college campuses; and,
  4. To speak to the strengths of college tennis as a leader in these endeavors, a sport that was so willing quickly offered for possible elimination. 

While as a primary purpose colleges and universities work to prepare an educated citizenry, they are more than just places for instruction. In today’s society, many have submitted through the years and continue to do so today that there are three primary roles of higher education: (1) a commercial role related to professional/vocational preparation (i.e., starting careers; getting jobs); (2) a cognitive role (i.e., acquiring information and learning to think); and, (3) a moral role (i.e., developing self – character and values).

Intercollegiate athletics have historically held a very important place in higher education. Together we must continue to find and ensure the rightful place of a wide variety of sports within the new American university especially at the top of Division I athletics, and not opine about a world of Division I athletics with 12 sports. Let’s not simply reference DIII, let’s celebrate the spirit of DIII and that same spirit that lives on the DI campuses that host 26 or 32 sports, and the DI Athletic Directors who have been adding sports in recent years. Historically, the role of sports in society has been, in part, to help human beings live fuller lives, exploring the fullness of human potential. To be clear, we are not simply “in the entertainment business” as one administrator suggested.  Yes, we’re in a serious crisis, where we must deal with reality and not sugar coat the facts, but let’s remember, as Simon Sinek likes to remind us, of “our why.” Let’s remember the words of former Yale professor and President Bart Giamatti, the former Commissioner of Major League Baseball, who said, “Athletics teaches lessons valuable to the individual by stretching the human spirit in ways that nothing else can.”

Fans look on as the 2019 Oracle ITA National Fall Championships women’s single title match is being played (photo: Jacob Dye/ITA Staff)

Sports, in general, have always been an important part of civilization and American society. Athletics are a unique element of holistic education, with deep roots back to early Greeks who intersected body, mind and soul. Like the arts, sports are beautiful in the own right. There is a great vision and humanity in sports. Sports are a metaphor for life. While we have to address money, and fundraising, and sponsors, and sky boxes, let’s continue to talk about personal growth and development through sports, many sports.

Let’s keep discussing what competition means, understanding its Latin derivative, striving together. Yes, Angela Duckworth is correct, grit is passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals. Let’s focus on the right long-term goals while dealing with the short-term economic challenges.  Let’s build new structures so that we don’t let the current flawed structural models continue. 

While focusing on balancing budgets, let’s remember that football Saturday is a holiday, from the Latin for “Holy Days” . . . the “sacred time” of the “big game.” While some might seem quick to eliminate Olympic sports, let’s instead celebrate Olympic values.

Let’s refocus on three roles of intercollegiate athletics in higher education that numerous scholars have identified: (1) holistic education that is concerned with character formation and helping students become the best that they can be as well as a concern for human achievement; (2) building community, common ground; unifying a campus by drawing people together; and (3) building the school brand – an indicator of institutional quality, prestige, and success, supporting marketing, visibility, and institutional positioning.

In addition to the strength of Olympic sports values, there are also positive ways to describe and discuss the “revenue” side of “Olympic” sports – not simply defining them as “non-revenue” because they do not contribute significant monies from ticket sales and concessions to the budgets of athletics departments.  They do contribute revenue to the higher education enterprise in different and important ways. It has been reported that in 2018-19, Olympic sports student-athletes generated $12.4 billion in tuition & fees compared with $6.3 billion in expenses. Olympic sports created opportunities for 497,438 students while football and basketball generated 147,067 opportunities.

All of this said, I will agree with the premise that the USOCP can be viewed in disarray in certain respects. To the ultimate goal of getting the USOPC and NCAA to work better together, we witnessed such an attempt recently in the deal that these two organizations struck in January regarding the “Olympic Sports.” 

Please know that the ITA and USTA jointly opposed NCAA legislation 2019-121, the stated purpose being to allow student-athletes to be designated as “elite” by the USOPC and NGB (or international equivalent) and, thus, permit individual workouts with a coach to not be “countable athletically related activities” (CARA).

We argued that the proposed legislation was not practical, would be very difficult to monitor, and will unnecessarily create many undesirable compliance challenges. In the world of tennis, for example, there are 205 different national tennis federations which can all choose different criteria with which to label student-athletes as “elite.” The By-Laws of the USTA, for example, presently define “elite athletes” as those that have already competed in the Olympics and/or in Davis Cup or Fed Cup. NCAA proposed legislation 2019-121 as passed will, thus, clearly put all American tennis student-athletes at a competitive disadvantage in their development to the other nearly 200 NGB’s that could clearly choose to define current collegiate student-athletes (and even prospective student-athletes) as “elite,” and, in turn, provide their prospective Olympians with the added opportunities allowed per the legislation. 

The goal of facilitating NCAA/USOPC conversation aside, it is either naïve or disingenuous to suggest that colleges and universities support college tennis on their campus from some belief that the USTA might need college tennis to support the U.S. Olympic Tennis Team.  These schools do so because of the values that the sport of tennis teaches and brings to their campuses and their communities.

While the AthleticDirectorU article is correct that the USTA doesn’t need college tennis to field their small Olympic teams (mind you, two or three women and men compared to large Olympic swimming teams), the logic is faulty to conclude that, thus, we don’t need tennis on college campuses. To be clear, while former American college tennis stars have competed for the U.S. Olympic Team, the Olympic tennis competition is primarily filled with the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. To suggest that because the USTA doesn’t need college to field a small Olympic team is a reason to possibly cut over 600 Division I college tennis programs is making false equivalences to suggest unnecessary outcomes. 

Ashley Lahey of Pepperdine Women’s Tennis serves at the 2019 Oracle ITA Masters (photo: Jacob Dye, ITA/Staff)

While the number of American college players who compete on the Olympic tennis team might be limited, suggesting a “limited competitive future” beyond college is also ridiculous. Aside from the many college tennis players that do go on to successful careers as tennis professionals, whether it be on the ATP and WTA tours or at tennis clubs, tennis as the sport of a lifetime will see college tennis players competing regularly for years and years, some well into their 90’s, including competing in national USTA championships. Tennis is a lifestyle sport. The plethora of competition opportunities available beyond college, both professionally and recreationally, is broader than that of almost all other sports.  

Our partners at the USTA, like the ITA, recognize that college tennis is the connective tissue for American tennis, the aspirational goal for American junior tennis players and one viable high-performance pathway to a career as a top professional tennis player.  Approximately 18 million adults play tennis regularly in the U.S. Are there 18 million adult lacrosse league players and/or 18 million post-college football players continuing their competitive football careers?

Similar to arguing a “limited competitive future for college tennis players” is a non-starter, I would suggest that interjecting the role of international players in college tennis to the thesis at hand is not germane and is actually an overt diversion to the fundamental conversation regarding the NCAA and USOPC.

That said, since AthleticDirectorU chose to weave international players into their post, I will respond conceptually. I believe that we can all agree that American higher education is also very much a global enterprise. Thomas Friedman has rightly proclaimed that The World is Flat. Chancellors and Presidents of American colleges and universities, of all sizes, tout the current and desired global reach and impact of their institutions and work daily to expand that scope and influence. In fact, it is not just American colleges, as European colleges are also working hard to capture an increasing global audience. This is now the nature of higher education throughout the world, and North America has paved the way as to how many universities in the western world now operate. Major colleges and universities now want to see how they are measured internationally and not just “at home.”

Therefore, the global nature of college tennis is a strength and not a weakness. Many Power 5 athletic directors agree that international players bring great diversity to their teams, departments, universities, and communities and support the global initiatives of their institutions. 

Be clear, college tennis is not simply an “American enterprise,” any more than music departments and engineering departments are simply for Americans within the higher education enterprise. Arguing that tennis should be cut as a major college sport because of the number of international players might be simple to do but, in my opinion, is an unwise course of action. 

Yes, there are a high number of international players in NCAA Division I and II. But, understand that there are only 3% international players in DIII and the DI’s Patriot league, where no athletic scholarships are offered. 

The issues surrounding international players in college tennis might seem to pose a challenge to some. For some the issue is troubling. The totality of the matter is for another discussion and another day, and I have penned an article which discusses the situation in great depth. The short answer centers around a calculus which intersects the large number of DI tennis scholarships that are available, the desire of Division I tennis programs to field the best teams possible, and the assessment of DI coaches as to who America’s and the world’s best college prospects are to fill their roster spots. To be continued.

In reviewing the NCAA’s latest data, published by the NCAA Research Department, you will find that other NCAA sports do have a larger number of international players than tennis (i.e., men’s soccer), and faster growing percentages than tennis (i.e., soccer and water polo for men and field hockey for women), but that tennis has the highest overall participation percentage of international players. Ice hockey has the second highest percentage, for both men and women.

In comparing tennis to other activities on college campuses, I submit that a high-level college tennis program parallels other high achieving endeavors at a comprehensive university, such as music schools and departments. 

Schools such as the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California, and the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia have determined that they seek to be the best in the world when it comes to musical excellence, not simply the best in the United States. Yes, Juilliard wants to recruit and attract the best students from New York City, and the State of New York, but it also wants the best students from across America as well as from around the world – Israel, China, Japan, Korea, Russia, Germany, etc., etc. Juilliard’s admissions philosophy is that “Juilliard is seeking the best students in the world and we accept the best in the world regardless of their country of origin.”

Val Vacherot of Texas A&M Men’s Tennis at the 2019 Oracle ITA National Fall Championships (photo: Jacob Dye/ITA Staff)

Non-revenue sports, such as tennis, have been focused on athletic success, academic success, the development of personal relationships and a presence on their campus, as well as community engagement. The ITA, for example, has for years been supporting a national Community Engagement Month, supported by a major national sponsor, and has just recently unveiled a national service project called Tennis for America.

John Bridgeland, who played varsity tennis at Harvard and won the ITA’s 2015 David A Benjamin Achievement Award, is presently the CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm. He challenged the ITA to consider what a “Tennis Peace Corps” might look like. He suggested that, “In every generation, Americans who have undertaken national service—in military and civilian capacities—have emerged more connected to their generation and more invested in our country.” He was clear that service compels young people out of their comfort zones, connects them with others from different backgrounds, and cultivates in them a sense of duty and civic responsibility. 

College tennis is proud to become the first major sport to support national service in a systematic way, and in the process mentor vulnerable youth, help them gain access to the sport, and help strengthen the popularity of tennis. The Intercollegiate Tennis Association has formed Tennis for America. The ITA now joins other prestigious corps in civilian national service, such as the Peace Corps, Teach for America, City Year, and Habitat for Humanity. These are the value propositions that college tennis is bringing to college campuses.

College tennis and the ITA have become innovative leaders in the world of intercollegiate athletics – with tennis a fast-paced sport that prepares student-athletes for a fast-paced world. 

A unique combination of individual and team competition that develops successful individuals in life as well as contributing members of teams – as with other sports – through self-discipline, great sportsmanship, hard work, teamwork/camaraderie, developing leadership skills, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, the understanding of rules, dealing with life’s ups and downs, joys and adversity, and many other life lessons. College tennis continues to produce America’s next generation of leaders – with high GPAs, high graduation rates, high number of advanced degrees (masters, doctoral – Ph.D., M.D., J.D.), and a high numbers of America’s CEOs, COOs, CFOs, as well as teachers and scholars.

The ITA has become a leader in competitive programming, innovative uses of athletic social media, promoting our schools, their brands, coaches and players. Our new competitive format in Division I has become fan friendly and been featured on ESPNU and The Tennis Channel. Our awards program for coaches and student athletes is one of the most robust in all of college athletics.

While I applaud Dr. Dittmore and AthleticDirectorU for posing interesting questions, those being discussed by athletic directors, college presidents, coaches associations, coaches, students-athletes, and fans, I believe that the tennis illustrations that were used to make a limited point offered an invitation to university decision-makers who might have read the AthleticDirectorU post as a misguided rationale for cutting college tennis programs – teams and student-athletes who represent their schools well, offer diversity on their campuses, serve their communities, and develop students of high achievement, championship human beings on and off the court.

Yes, we understand that college football pays for most of college athletics.  But we must not use this opportunity as a “reset” to eliminate “non-revenue” sports and tear apart the vibrant fabric of the intercollegiate athletic tapestry on our country’s colleges and universities. Instead, we must use this opportunity to have non-revenue sports create new models to reinvent themselves and help be part of the solution and not simply viewed as “a problem,” while football considers what their world might look like, for example, with fewer scholarships. I believe there are 53 players on an NFL roster. 85/53? There are other ways to trim college athletics budgets. Let’s all get to work. #WeAreInThisTogether!

©ITA – April 10, 2020

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Why don’t the 18 million USTA member tennis players come to watch/support collegiate tennis? I played D-1 collegiate tennis and the fan base is really small, even for elite teams.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful response to balance the conversation. As the father of a former D1 women’s tennis player, I can say without hesitation, the points you raise about the student athletes and the importance of diverse college athletics is right on target. As a student athlete, our daughter learned to balance commitments to her education, developing life skills and being part of a team. I can think of no better way to develop a well rounded individual. She has gone on to start two successful small businesses while raising three children.

    As a retired business executive, I also agree that knee jerk reactions during a time of crisis rarely lead to sound decision making. When building a house, you start with a solid foundation.

    Thanks for your perspective, your measured approach, and for your leadership and being the voice of reason during this time of crisis.

  3. Well said, Tim. When circumstances like this one arise, we can take the easy way out, or go deep and find real solutions beyond a temporary issue such as COVID-19. Maybe the problem is not the non-revenue sports, but the highly exaggerated revenue sports, which have helped many forget the real value of college sports.

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