January 5 2024

By Travis Feezell, Ed.D.

It can be said that athletics are the “front porch” of the university: a visible expression of institutional excellence so unlike what happens in the classrooms or labs or residence halls. Winning programs and teams are equated with great institutions, losing programs not so much.   

And yet … 

I’m not sure I’ve ever bought into this bumper sticker proclamation even though winning does seem to connote some level of achievement.  Athletics are indeed wonderful displays of student activity and development with accompanying mentors (coaches) and institutional resources – but so too are fine arts productions, research projects, and the like.

Yes, athletics are perhaps more in the cultural eye, but we should challenge the notion that they are the best and only expressions of institutional excellence and that winning programs somehow demonstrates greatness in our universities and colleges. 

athletics spectatorsiStock-1037044238Instead, consider if you will the “triple threat” lens to evaluate athletics excellence as a measure of both the athletics programs as well as the institutional support of athletics. Triple threat is a reference to those powerhouse entertainers who can sing, dance, and act. Think Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Bernadette Peters or Viola Davis; rare talents who can do it all, lighting up stages, screens, and hearts.  

What does a triple threat comprehensive athletics program look like?

A "Triple Threat" athletics program combines the elements of competition on the courts and fields, a positive financial return for the institution, and meaningful student outcomes. 

 Three elements of a triple threat athletics program

  1. The athletics programs are competitive against peer schools.
    Athletics don’t have to win championships, though, of course, this would be welcome! Community is built through friendly, competitive rivalry; athletes and fans alike know the familiar feeling of competing well against similar schools, especially those in one’s region and conference. Also, athletics competitiveness should spread across all of the athletics programs offerings. To be good in one and poor in another suggests perhaps an imbalance of priorities and supports. 
  2. The athletics program contributes positively to the overall financial health of the institution.
    Whether or not the athletics programs provide athletics award aid, athletics programs should provide some positive financial contribution for the institution. For some this might be through enhanced net tuition revenue while for others this might be through substantial philanthropy. In essence, there must be a measurable financial return on the resources directed towards athletics activities.
  3. The athletics program centers the experience in student engagement and student development.
    Programs that see students as the means to some other end rather than as ends in themselves are somehow bankrupt, lacking that vital purpose of any teaching activity. And it shows. Engaged students stay at the institution. Engaged students tell positive stories to and for other students. Engaged students grow. Engaged students provide competitive outcomes. 

The triple threat program sees the interdependency of these three elements. Competitiveness does not happen without financial health and appropriately directed resources. Robust student engagement contributes to both competitiveness and institutional financial well-being through retention and net tuition revenue. The presence of each of these three elements supports the others. That presence and ultimately that success is palpable and visible. Just like Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake. 

Questions For Consideration

  1. Are your athletics programs a triple threat?
  2. What elements are present?
  3. What are missing?
  4. How does your college or university prioritize athletics and what could be more efficient? 


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