By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers
(Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Newsletter of Intent)
Over the past seven months, The Intercollegiate has requested documents from every NCAA Division I university relating to athlete exit surveys conducted during the 2018-19 academic year. And the fruits of that endeavor — a lavish sampling, anyway — is now open for public viewing at The Intercollegiate’s “Library.”
While imperfect data instruments — they’re inconsistently administered, frequently redacted and at various times tedious — these documents nevertheless provide an illuminating window into the contemporaneous experiences of the thousands of participants in the top echelon of college sports. They also indicate how much emphasis individual schools — and the NCAA — actually place on the notional concept of the “student-athlete voice.”
As the world of college sports is currently (and justifiably) engrossed in the debate over athlete endorsement rights, the exit interview materials are a striking reminder of numerous other challenges facing intercollegiate athletics that won’t be addressed, let alone solved, with name, image and likeness reforms.
Before we get to the nub of the evidence, we need some context:
- All of the materials we are publishing were scrubbed of the individual athletes’ names by the schools, as the interviews are meant to be conducted anonymously.
- In certain cases, we made some additional redactions so as to further safeguard their anonymities.
- The numerous assertions made in these documents have not been independently substantiated or corroborated by us for their accuracy or truth. They should be read only as the recorded input athletes provided to their schools during exit or end-of-season interviews and surveys.
- As such, we have made some additional redactions in instances where unverified allegations or accusations of a factual nature are made against other individuals.
- There were wide discrepancies in how schools responded to our public records requests, with some outright denying them, while others turned over hundreds of pages to us. (We’ll be addressing this issue, and the many conflicting interpretations of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, in the future.)
Even still, there are a lot of discoveries to tackle:
- Perhaps you’d like to know what kinds of things Maryland football players said (and what were they asked about) in the wake of their former teammate Jordan McNair’s tragic heatstroke death? (You can check that out here.)
- Or maybe you’d like to see how seriously Michigan State takes its exit interview process in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal? (You can judge for yourself here; we also unpack this further down.)
Rather than keeping all these records to ourselves, privately culling them for story ideas and scoops, we think it better to submit these to an open collaboration with other journalists, academics and readers. So, dive in! (And, by all means, please let us know what you find.)
As we’ve been digging through these records ourselves, we were instantly struck by how different the exit interview process appears to operate from school to school. Some athletic departments employ elaborate survey software that produces polychromatic pie charts and probability scores for how likely their ex-athletes are to recommend the school to future recruits. Other departments clearly treat the exit interviews as a perfunctory chore, at best. And why wouldn’t they?
While this process is required by the NCAA, there is scarce guidance or enforcement from on high. In the course of requesting these records, a handful of schools acknowledged to us that they hadn’t conducted exit interviews at all last year. Others said they only do exit interviews if athletes solicit them. Still, many more insisted that they conduct oral, in-person interviews, but don’t maintain any kind of paper trail. Who’s following this rule? Who the hell knows?
With so little consistency, the athlete exit interview mandate presents a kind of Rorschach test for an institution’s commitment to athlete input. The interviews can show the priorities of administrators who run college sports programs, based on what they ask their athletes, how they ask it, who answers the questions, and how those answers are used. While the materials are certainly chock-full of praise and expressions of gratitude from athletes, we’re naturally most interested in the other stuff. Certainly, there are plenty of ignorable examples of athletes griping about petty annoyances, but sometimes the seemingly small objections may matter more than you might think.
Consider this lament from a Bowling Green athlete:
There are also plenty of universal issues raised — some of which reinforce things you’ve already heard, and others that a non-participant might never think about. Given all the talk these days about the infrastructure boom in intercollegiate athletics, we were struck to read complaints about vermin infestations, broken air conditioners and plumbing malfunctions.
More importantly, the collective exit interviews demonstrate how athlete concerns reported in isolation may be disturbingly common. Last month, Rutgers softball players went public with allegations of abuse against first-year head coach Kristin Butler. While Rutgers was one of the schools that denied our records request for their exit interview materials, the kinds of complaints the players allege — living in fear of having their scholarships revoked, being punitively and indiscriminately punished, and subjected to inappropriate personal comments — are by no means unique.
In fact, they’re reminiscent of accusations Daniel discovered athletes had made New Mexico’s softball coach in UNM’s exit interview notes a couple of years ago. (Here’s their latest.) And then there’s the more recent case of abuse allegations leveled against Nebraska softball coach Rhonda Revelle, whose players reportedly tried an en-bloc approach of whistleblowing through their end-of-season surveys. Via the Washington Post:
The Nebraska players attempted to use one route available to them in the spring. At the conclusion of each season, players fill out surveys about their experience with the team. The responses are anonymous but require identifying information, such as the player’s year in school and the amount of scholarship money she receives…On last season’s surveys, to protect their anonymity while detailing their concerns, the vast majority of players wrote they were seniors on full scholarships and then alleged they had been verbally abused and harassed by Revelle.
(Nebraska also denied our request for exit interviews.)
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NCAA EXIT INTERVIEWS
As television money cascaded into college sports in the 1980s, the NCAA embraced a handful of measures that evidenced its concern for the perspectives of its revenue-generators. In 1989, the NCAA adopted an association-wide Student Athlete Advisory Committee, which supposedly gave athletes a seat at the decision-making table.
The exit interview process was written into the NCAA rulebook two years later, when the organization formally adopted then-Bylaw 6.3.2.
It established that schools “shall conduct exit interviews with a sample of student-athletes in each sport (as determined by the institution) whose eligibility has expired,” with questions regarding “the value of the students’ athletics experiences, the extent of athletics time demands … proposed changes in intercollegiate athletics and concerns” about the athlete’s specific sport.
The rationale, per the NCAA, was “the development of an intercollegiate athletics program responsive to the needs and interests of participating student-athletes.”
It was a toothless command that has only become more discretional in recent years.
Exit interview information used to be reviewed as part of the self-study process, when schools applied for Division I certification every decade. But that whole shebang was done away with in 2014.
“There is currently no requirement for schools to provide exit interview information to the NCAA national office,” said NCAA spokesperson Gina de Haan. “Schools are responsible for reviewing and analyzing exit interview information and decide to what extent it is used in the oversight of athletics.”
Asked about the potential NCAA ramifications for non-compliant institutions, de Haan demurred: “We don’t (want) to speculate as to what penalties the Committee on Infractions would assign if a school was found to not be conducting exit interviews per NCAA member-created legislation.”
In 2015, Stephen Iannotta, currently an associate AD at North Carolina, authored an analysis of college athlete exit interviews for his master’s thesis.
Of the NCAA’s command, Iannotta wrote: “By allowing the institutions to determine the sample size, schools may opt to conduct a minimal number of exit interviews to simply fulfill a requirement. The true purpose of the exit interviews, which is for schools to study and evaluate their current operations, is thus diminished.”
Given how fastidious the NCAA can be about enforcement when it so chooses, its lax approach to Article 6.3 does seem telling.
Also telling: Lesser-resourced programs, we discovered, often take the process more seriously than Power Five nobility. Though perhaps it should, the quality of an exit survey doesn’t necessarily scale to the size of an athletic department’s budget. For example, mid-major Florida Gulf Coast University’s exit interview survey, with its 199 questions, was one of the most detailed we came across. The University of Nebraska Omaha begins its survey with this strikingly high-minded question: “Has the UNO Athletic Department shown a commitment to your emotional/psychological health”?
Then there’s Michigan State, a notoriously scandalized Big Ten program with every incentive to prove its deep commitment to eliciting candid athlete feedback. (Need we remind you?) But the exit interview documents the school provided us don’t exactly bear that out.
Of its 17 mostly generic questions, not one addressed sexual assault. In fact, arguably the most probing query on the list had to do with the athletic department’s end-of-the-season SWAG, specifically the “jacket, plaque blanket and ring.”
We asked the university for an explanation as to why their athlete exit interview questions seemed so, well, trivial.
“The interviews are a useful tool to help administrators view the program from a student-athlete’s perspective, consistent with our top priority of focusing on the well-being of the student-athlete,” said MSU athletics spokesman Matt Larson.
“The forms are used as a guide for conversation, but student-athletes are free to discuss anything they want. In addition, the athletic department provides all student-athletes the education and the resources to report issues at any point in their career.”
Fellow scandalized Big Ten member Ohio State told us they didn’t have any records related to last year’s exit interviews.
“We are likely seeking similar information as what other schools seek in their exit interviews,” says OSU Associate Athletic Director Jerry Emig, “but we simply aren’t doing it in an electronic survey fashion.”
Clemson provided us just a few pages of heavily redacted interviewer notes, reflecting exit interviews with only six outgoing athletes. Spokesman Jeff Kallin said these just happened to be the recordings from one sports administrator; it’s not department policy. Kallin said there’s “not a specific reason we don’t” maintain exit interview records but suggested, in general, that Clemson prioritizes ongoing conversations with athletes throughout the season over a formal post-season debriefing.
Up until now, Washington State says it has largely put the evaluation ball in its athletes’ court, sending emails to departing seniors with an invitation to “verbally share feedback of their experience,” according to spokesman Bill Stevens. But Stevens said his school has recently come to determine that its deferential approach might not be the best.
“There has not been a lot of response and it is something we are looking to address in our recently released strategic plan,” Stevens said, “making it a point of emphasis to find new ways to gather information related to the student-athletes’ experiences.”
On the other end of the spectrum is a school like Texas, whose extensive surveying produces Thanksgiving-feast-worth of athlete data and testimony.
After filling out all their responses, UT athletes are asked to sign this statement of affirmation that their feedback is “a truthful and accurate reflection” of their experience and that they may be called upon for further discussion if they implicate the violation of any institutional or NCAA rules. (Hook ‘Em, indeed.)
Putting aside the quality and veracity of the athletes’ responses, there’s an inherent challenge in just getting athletes to respond at all.
As is not uncommon, Arizona State asked its survey participants would like to follow up for an in-person interview. Of the 38 respondents, only nine said “yes.”
Casey Hunt, the senior woman administrator at Missouri State, tells us that her school has tried “all different angles” to boost participation for its survey.
“We have tried it online, in person, we give it to the coaches, and any which way, we struggle with response rate,” Hunt says. “I don’t know if it’s too long, or their angst to put something on there. We don’t know, but it has been a pretty consistent, 30- to 40- percent [response].”
On the other hand, some schools do more than just exit interviews; they attempt to survey all of their athletes, every year. And some athletes were chomping at the bit to lend their observations.
Offered an athlete at UMass Lowell: “Although we do surveys every year I think that there should be more extensive surveys like this at the end of every year where players have more opportunities to voice their concerns.”
WHO’S HEARD, WHO’S NOT
The reluctance to speak up on these surveys isn’t universal across sports or demographic lines. Often we saw athletes from non-revenue sports such as tennis, gymnastics, golf and cross country expressing opinions with gusto — or at least agreeing to participate. In contrast with those sports, which draw from mostly white, often wealthy students, men’s football and basketball players are rarely heard from in the surveys.
Last year, about 60 percent of all Idaho State athletes participated in the school’s end-of-season athletic department survey. However, the response rates were dramatically less for football (44 percent) and men’s basketball (47 percent).
Kansas State’s responses highlight this bleak divide; not a single survey respondent identified as African-American.
Which means that those players whose on-field work in the big-ticket sports helps generate the vast majority of NCAA Division I revenue (and who happen to be disproportionately black and lower-income), are also frequently underrepresented in the exit-interview conversation. (There were some notable exceptions, such as Louisiana-Lafayette, which had phenomenal response rates from its football team, which was 75 percent black).
A small cottage industry has developed around these surveys, with athletic departments now contracting with third-party companies like RealRecruit (slogan: “Discover your school”) and Athlete Viewpoint (“designed by athletic directors, for athletic directors”) to handle the exit interviews.
Real Recruit’s software analytics parcels a school’s athlete respondents into categories of “Promoters”, “Passives” and “Detractors”. This necessarily raises questions about the real purpose of the input.
There’s also the matter of who owns the data. Maybe they were just trying to dodge us, but a few schools, in denying our public records requests, insisted that an outside vendor was the sole possessor of their exit interview materials.
THE SO-CALLED COLLEGE LIFE
Throughout the surveys, a sense of dissatisfaction and even melancholy keeps bubbling up, regardless of the size of the program or the location of the college.
One thing that comes through clearly is the sense of isolation athletes often feel from their broader campuses. Even when the bulk of the respondents answer that they feel connected to the rest of the college, the more detailed responses frequently say otherwise.
A Texas athlete spoke for more than a few respondents across the country:
I know there’s not much y’all can do about this, but an idea exists among many student athletes that they don’t have time for anything past their sport. I think so many people miss out on the opportunity to learn from getting involved in something within athletics or on campus where they are able to lead or organize things and people…here is so much I learned from being friends with people outside my team that I’ve seen many of my friends miss out on by being involved only in the silo of Athletics or believing they don’t have time to do anything more.
The following back-to-back comments suggest that Texas tried to help students expand their horizons and didn’t always succeed:
Athletics held me back from developing meaningful relationships with students and professors on campus.
We were well integrated into the general student life. We were encouraged to branch out of our comfort zones and make personal connections.
At Illinois, 35 percent of the respondents didn’t agree that athletes are integrated into the campus community.
Sports participation excludes them from other student experiences. Again at Illinois (and kudos for asking the questions), more than half didn’t agree they were able to attend an interesting non-athletic event. And according to Athlete Viewpoint, U of I gets a better response on this question than its rivals.
A student at Lamar, meanwhile, volunteered an answer that revealed another disconnect: “My injury did not allow me to use Academic Services often.”
Injuries, part of the (unpaid) occupational hazard of being an athlete, can create more than physical pain, as an Akron athlete explained: “When I was injured I felt as much less a part of the team than others. I also was given snarky remarks toward my injury leading me to believe my coach thought I was faking or soft so to speak.”
A Bowling Green student, on a campus where the surveys reveal a great deal of satisfaction among the athletes, nonetheless echoes sentiments that pop up frequently throughout the documents, regardless of the school: “A good experience academically and athletically but I wished I would have made more connections socially during my time at BG.”
Though their on-campus interactions may be limited, athletes are sharing one common college experience with their non-athletic brethren: mounting debt. In surveying its athletes, Illinois found 42.1 percent will graduate with outstanding students loan. For people who believe Division I college sports is a ticket to a free education, that’s probably shocking. It shouldn’t be. A 2011 study commissioned by the National College Players Association found the average “full” Division I football or men’s basketball scholarship fell short of covering an individual player’s college costs by $3,222. Considering the vast majority of Division I athletes are on partial scholarships, it makes sense that a high percentage of them will leave campus owing money.
Another characteristic athletes share with run-of-the-mill students: They complain about stuff. Some of these complaints relate to their unique situations, most notably regarding training facilities and performance venues. Even at a Cadillac program such as Texas, known for pioneering the luxe locker-room lounge trend (plush leather chairs, the latest gaming consoles, delicious snacks), a few Longhorns felt left behind.
Said one malcontented Longhorn: “The best gear and (redacted). However, our (redacted) house is filled with rats. It is disgusting; they eat our food. This is not the Texas ‘Standard of Excellence.’”
Several Illinois athletes rued the sense they were being left in the dust by their conference rivals. “Our facilities are some of the worst in the Big 10,” wrote one irked Illini. “The stadium we play in is a joke,” wrote another.
Much feedback touches on the resource stratification within college athletics. Non-revenue sport participants weren’t naive to the reality that football and men’s basketball programs typically operate on much larger budgets, but they still griped about how galling the gap can feel.
“The disparity in services offered based on the sports is just outrageous,” said one UNLV athlete. “I understand that there is income disparities between each sports but it is unacceptable to see some student-athletes get dry cleaning, multiple pairs of shoes, incredible facilities, state of the art locker rooms etc. when others have to learn to live with a WW2 bunker as their lockeroom [sic].”
There was all kinds of issues involving equipment and jerseys, but we really could empathize with the existential torment expressed by this Eastern Washington men’s basketball player:
My home game shorts drawstring had an impossible knot to undo and it was virtually impossible to get them on and off without feeling like I was putting on a Hannibal Lector [sic] Straight Jacket.
Complaints about food were nearly universal—well, except at Texas, where the dining hall was lauded—especially the carb-and-fat-laden vittles on road trips.
One Texas A&M Corpus Christi athlete complained that his/her coach “knows that I can’t eat gluten but he takes us to places like Olive Garden and expects me to eat salad and soup every lunch and dinner for the full weekend.”
But it wasn’t restricted to road food. Many colleges were tagged for not providing nutrition counseling or adequate dining to meet an elite athlete’s needs. A Maryland football player weighed in thusly:
The nutritional program was severely lacking. The guidance and counseling I received was minimal and no foods based on calorie count or amount was provided. I had to guess the correct proportions based on the food I was told would be best for me.
Academic programs to help athletes received mixed reviews across the board. Some schools’ athletes lauded them, such as this one at Arizona State:
Others, such as Miami of Ohio, were less impressed; one athlete said the “Study Table” was “not a conducive place to study,” with another filling in some details: “The lack of monitoring turns it into a place where freshman go to watch Netflix in order to meet their required hours. It is loud and unproductive.” (To be fair, Miami of Ohio does have a Film Studies program.)
HOUR AFTER HOUR
The most universal off-field issue is the time demanded of a Division I athlete. The hours athletes are compelled to put in (did we mention they’re unpaid?) don’t square well with the ostensible payment for their work—a college education. Rather than provide educational opportunities, big-time sports seems to take them away. Go figure.
Not to pick on Texas, but the Lone Star state survey is a lodestar for issues that keep cropping up across the country. “It would be nice if we had the opportunities to have more majors,” said one UT athlete. “I wanted to do nursing but because of the times of practice and those classes, I was unable to do so.” Added another, “Was not able to do international relations because coaches needed me here to compete.”
But Texas athletes mostly said their coaches kept them within NCAA practice-time limits. Not so the respondents at Texas’ Big 12 rival Kansas State, where six of the paltry 17 respondents (35 percent) said they were “required to do countable athletically-related activities above the permissible 4 hours per day/20 hours per week (in season) or 8 hours per week (out-of-season).”
And when asked if they agreed with the statement “out-of-season voluntary practices are truly voluntary,” only half of Illinois respondents agreed—which was a better rate than their rivals, according to Illinois’ hired survey service, Athlete Viewpoint.
At Louisiana-Lafayette, an athlete responded to a question about expectations during “vacation periods” with a quip: “Vacation periods? What are those, my guy?”
In short, the life of a D-I athlete is not what many fans imagine it is. At Florida International, five of the 27 survey respondents said they would choose differently if they had to make the decision again to attend FIU, with comments that included: “Too much demand for academics and playing a sport”; “Would consider not playing a sport if she had to do it again”; “Would come for everything except to play sports”; and “Have anxiety now.”
A Bowling Green athlete summed it up succinctly in answering a question about recommending the school to others: “Yes, but need to know being a student-athlete is hard.”