In NCAA Division I, New Data Shows Burnout Is Rampant Among Administrators
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For several years, data has been accumulating about the working conditions of collegiate athletic administrators, and unsurprisingly, the latest data set from Athletic Director U paints a very dim picture of life in the big leagues of college sports.

While many former athletes, business majors and even some sports fans aspire to work in college sports, it doesn’t take long to realize that it cannot be defined as a typical 40 hour a week job. In fact, due in large part to the ever expanding need to lengthen seasons and create specialized training and coaching activities to improve athlete performance, Division I employment look almost nothing like it did two decades ago. For many, it’s a 7 day a week job, and includes many nights and weekends year round.

The survey broke down the answers received from nearly 1400 Division I athletic department employees. The data was collected along traditional lines, including:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • Years working in college athletics
  • Years at current employer
  • Title
  • Area employed

Two unique categories were:

  • DI classification: (Basketball centric, Football Championship Subdivision, Group of 5 and Power 5)
  • Caregiving responsibilities

Overall observations

  • The overall high risk for any collegiate administrator to disengage with their work: 61.2%
  • The overall high risk for exhaustion rate for the same group: 85.2%
  • The overall high risk burnout rate for the same group: 35.2%

As one dives more deeply into the trends, a few other observations are notable. First, the exhaustion rate for males and females was in the high risk category. This is consistent with reports of “headcount reductions, upside-down balance sheets, as well as the overall challenges of remote or arms-length operations for health and safety reasons.”

Next, both men and women who have been “in the business” for anywhere from 5-20 years experienced consistent levels of disengagement and exhaustion; but when you examine the “burnout rates”, administrators with between 5-10 years of experience reported the highest levels, a troubling trend for college athletics.

There are other recent studies about burnout in specific areas of athletic administration. Ogelsby, Gallucci and Wynnveen, in a 2020 National Institute of Health study, identified athletic trainer burnout at every level, from student trainer to faculty members. The authors noted the “causes of burnout in Athletic Trainers included work-life conflict and organizational factors such as poor salaries, long hours, and difficulties dealing with the “politics and bureaucracy” of athletics. Effects of burnout in ATs included physical, emotional, and behavioral concerns (eg, intention to leave the job or profession).”

Rubin and Moreno-Pardo (2018) reported on deep burnout in the student-athlete academic services area. Among many comments the authors reported, one stood out: “We’re extremely underappreciated, but yet the first ones to point to and blame if something happens.” The participants also complained of the lack of professional growth opportunities.

Add the increasing issues of mental health distress found in college athletes, alongside the demands for staff to identify and refer athletes to appropriate professional care, and the “business of college athletics” may have reached an inflection point.

Head coaches and athletic directors often proudly speak of the culture they have created within their team or department. However, what might appear to be successful to the outsider may look and feel entirely different to those working on the inside. The culture won’t be successful if the staff are struggling.

Athletes Are Struggling As Well

In late April, a Vanderbilt athlete wrote a deeply painful letter to the college community about mental health.

Playing a college sport is just hard. It is really hard. And if you’d like to have a life outside of your sport, which many of us student athletes do, you’re then taking on a self-imposed responsibility to maintain your academics, your social life, your career, and your relationships — all the while learning to navigate complicated feelings, conflict, the wavering sense of worthiness and having your basic psychological needs met as a young adult.

Playing a sport in college, honestly, feels like playing fruit ninja with a butter knife. There are watermelons and cantaloupes being flung at you from all different directions while you’re trying to defend yourself using one of those flimsy cafeteria knives that can’t even seem to spread room-temperature butter. And beyond the chaos and overwhelm of it all, you’ve got coaches and parents and trainers and professors who expect you to come away from the experience unscathed, fruit salad in hand.

While Division I has been focused on the outcome of the Transformation Committee, it is clear from the data available that burnout, disengagement, and sheer exhaustion are impacting the daily lives of athletic administrators, while Division I athletes are experiencing serious mental health issues.

It’s long past time to look at how athletic departments are organized and structured. There are many good people leaving the industry, saying on the way out they want to gain some semblance of work-life balance. This data shows that no matter how high profile an athletics program is, or what “level” it holds in the D1 ecosystem, the problems are the same. In this era of the “Great Resignation and Reinvention”, its time for college athletics to reinvent its workplace environment.

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