On Tuesday, Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor, Gordon Gee,
announced that the school will no longer have an athletic
department.

Mira Levitan

But what initially looks like a drastic step may be little more
than symbolism. Vandy is dropping the athletic department, but not
the athletics. All 14 of the school’s varsity sports will remain in
place, and the Commodores will still compete in the SEC.

According to Associated Press reports, Vanderbilt plans to merge
its intercollegiate sports and its recreational activities into a
single department – the Office of Student Athletics. Athletic
Director Todd Turner will lose his current job but has been offered
a position as a special assistant to Gee.

The result of the unprecedented merger is that Vanderbilt’s
central administration will direct the financial, administrative
and marketing operations of all athletics.

But it’s hard to say if any of this will result in substantive
changes.

Michael Stevenson, Michigan’s Executive associate director of
athletics, said the move caught the attention of the Michigan
Athletic Department. But Michigan won’t be following suit, and he
doesn’t think anyone else in the NCAA will be either.

“Dropping athletics would be a very dramatic statement, but
they’re not saying that, so I’m not sure that it’s going to have
any impact (on other schools),” Stevenson said.

He pointed out that every athletic department answers to the
university administration, and that he didn’t see any shortcomings
in the current system that would be improved by merging departments
as Vanderbilt is doing. Stevenson said Gee’s motivation was
unclear.

“Unless he didn’t have confidence in the athletic department, I
don’t know why he would make such a decision,” Stevenson said.

Gee said in a statement that, “For too long, college athletics
has been segregated from the core mission of the university. As a
result, we have created a culture, both on this campus and
nationally, that is disconnected from our students, faculty and
other constituents, where responsibility is diffused, the potential
for abuse considerable and the costs – both financial and academic
– unsustainable.”

Gee need only look to Ohio State, where he served as athletic
director before his tenure at Vanderbilt, to see some of the ills
of NCAA athletics. The chancellor seemed to imply that his plan for
reorganization would distance Vanderbilt athletics from the
problems of so-called “big-time” college sports.

But Stevenson isn’t sure that that’s the case. He stressed that
it’s still early, and he would need to see more details on how the
reorganization will actually work before the impact will be clear.
But his initial reaction was to question whether real change will
occur.

“At the end of the day, if they continue to participate in
intercollegiate athletics, it’s hard to say they don’t have an
athletic department. You can call it leisure studies, or whatever
you want, but (it’s still athletics).”

He added that if there were problems in Vanderbilt’s athletic
department, they “are not going to go away” as a result of the
organizational change.

Stevenson wouldn’t go so far as to say the move was purely
symbolic, but he said, “If this is supposed to be a philosophical
statement, I’m still waiting to see what that statement is.”

And “waiting” is the key word. Vanderbilt made what at first
glance looks like a bold decision.

But it will be interesting to see if the restructuring has real
implications for Vanderbilt athletics – and, potentially, the NCAA
– or if it is a change in name only.

Courtney Lewis can be reached at
“mailto:cmlewis@umich.edu”>cmlewis@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

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