Swarbrick: Education has major role in all Notre Dame sports

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick finishes up the four days of Atlantic Coast Conference spring meetings on Thursday in Amelia Island, Fla.

That hardly means there will be a break in his schedule.

Here’s part two of Notre Dame football beat writer Eric Hansen’s Q&A with Swarbrick, looking at some of the issues that the Irish AD must process in the coming weeks and months:

SBT: When you hear somebody use the word ‘exploitation’ in regard to football players and men’s basketball players, what’s your thought when you hear that term?

Swarbrick: That they’re not close to collegiate sports, that they must not be around it on a daily basis.

The fundamental difference that leads to that view versus the view I and the institution I represent hold is the view as to whether the sports experience itself has educational value. And I passionately believe that it does.

Not only does a student-athlete who comes to Notre Dame have the benefit of an extraordinary education at the university and have a great probability of leaving here with a Notre Dame degree, but they’re also engaging in activity that educates them and develops them.

When I talk to our former student-athletes, and I do frequently — and they’re on Wall Street or they’re doctors or they’re doing whatever they’re doing — the thing I hear every time is. ‘I can’t believe how often every day I rely on the things I learned from Coach X, Y, Z.’

That’s why we’re in business. That’s why we do sports. If sports doesn’t do that, it doesn’t play that role, then why is it done on the collegiate level?

The people who see exploitation place no value on that. They’re looking at revenue streams and saying, ‘These people don’t get enough of it.’

Well, that’s not the business we’re in. Our revenue stream annually produces value to a whole bunch of things. It supports 26 sports. That’s because we believe that the education that the swimmer gets in the pool is as valuable as the education that the fencer gets on the fencing strip.

There are people who say, ‘Well, just cancel those sports. They don’t produce revenue.’ Well that’s not the university model. There are schools in the university that can produce more revenue than others. It doesn’t mean we don’t value all those schools and departments, we do. It’s the same with our sports programs.

SBT: With the Northwestern union movement, where do you think that ultimately settles?

Swarbrick: I don’t believe the employee model works at all for a host of reasons. As a practical matter, it doesn’t work. As someone who started my career practicing labor law, I don’t agree with the legal analysis that produced that result.

But I don’t think it’s good for the student-athletes, and I don’t think it’s good for the university. So at the end of the day, my pretty strongly held view is that it won’t prevail. I don’t believe in the long term it’s in the best interest of anyone.

Some of the other issues (confronting college sports), I feel, present greater likelihood of producing change than the union issue.

SBT: Do you feel like some of the issues that were raised by the union movement are things that need to be addressed in fairly short order? Do you feel like these were important issues that weren’t moving fast enough through the system until the union movement came along?

Swarbrick: Well, any issue that’s important to a number of student-athletes is an important issue, just as any issue that’s important to a group of students is an important issue.

On some of those issues, my perception of the pace of progress might be different than a student-athlete’s. For example, most of the significant research that’s going on with concussions is going on at American colleges and universities. And the great news is we’re learning from that, we’re sharing with each other. It’s incredibly valuable.

I think we have been very good at implementing rules that ensure only doctors are making decisions regarding return to play, at least at this institution we know we have been. So that’s one example.

Does that mean that we can’t do a much better job of health issues? We probably can. Let’s figure out how to be a better job. Let’s talk about what the specific issues are.

But if you ask most people where have been the most significant recent investments, where you’re really trying to build great capability, it’s around those athlete health issues. It’s around nutrition. It’s around medical care, trainers. So that’s just one example.

Managing the student-athletes’ time more effectively, I think, is an important one for us to discuss. And one of the autonomous issues that will be considered in the future is creating dead times for student-athletes, where there is no engagement in their sport. I think that’s a good thing for us to evaluate and consider.

SBT: It’s my understanding that student-athletes would have more of a voice built into the autonomous structure. Do you feel that it’s a concept that’s overdue?

Swarbrick: Absolutely. The more student-athlete engagement and participation in the governance process, the better. I’m all for it. Most of my career was spent in the Olympic movement more so than the collegiate movement before the last decade. And in the Olympic world, they’ve done a great job of integrating the Olympian into the governance model, and we should do the same.

SBT: Moving to scheduling, some conferences are going to nine games. Others were pressured to and decided to stay at eight. If everybody went to nine at some point, would that hinder what you’re trying to do in scheduling or does the pressure to play stronger teams in non-conference weigh in more in the ND scheduling equation?

Swarbrick: More the latter. Not that it makes a big difference, but as conferences have gone to nine, the irony is we’re getting criticized for discontinuing games with people. So in other words, more people want to play us — even with nine-game schedules in their future — than we’ve got inventory to offer.

So we have absolutely no challenge or difficulty building a great schedule with a very high degree of difficulty. And we’re heading into a year that proves that. And it will consistently continue to be so.

SBT: Is the anything new on the Georgia front in terms of putting a finer point on that series?

Swarbrick: Both they and we are eager to find dates that work, and that’s where the discussions are focused right now. But it’s not done.

SBT: Shifting focus to the upcoming college football playoff, what do you feel are the pluses and the minuses of having the Tuesday Top 25 starting in late October?

Swarbrick: I was an advocate for it, and I continue to be. I’ve been interested to read those people who have a different view. But this way creates an opportunity how the committee is thinking and what it’s valuing. It doesn’t come as a surprise at the end of the year.

And that’s what I think you want. Of all of the criticisms about the BCS model, the one that we tended to hear more often than not was transparency. So we wanted to build a model that built in greater transparency. If you came out with a poll at the end of the year, it sort of defies that notion. I think we struck a nice compromise.

Nobody should be issuing polls before the season starts, in my judgment. Who has any clue? But having enough weeks under your belt to have a real substantive evaluation and then issue a ranking, I think that will help inform everybody.

SBT: Do you think the number of playoff teams will stay at four throughout the life of that first contract, which is 12 years?

Swarbrick: Oh who knows? That was our goal. That’s why we structured it the way we did. It’s both our intention and hope. Having said that, we may get some years that produce some results that energize people who desperately care about a school that finishes fifth or sixth, and there will be new congressional hearings (laughs) just as there were regularly in the BCS days.

We acknowledge and understand the pressures that will inevitably come, but our hope is to be able to keep it at four.

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

 Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)