The National Collegiate Absurdity Association

Every good team needs a gameplan and this week, I’m talking strategy.

Strategic ambiguity, that is.

Although the term might sound unfamiliar, I’m sure everyone reading this piece has encountered strategic ambiguity in their lives as working adults. Simply put, strategic ambiguity is vague corporate language used to foster agreements.  It is commonly used when creating rules and legislative frameworks in organizations.

Why on earth would an organization choose to be vague in its legislation? Because explicitly-stated policy has been found to be strikingly ineffective. According to Eric Eisenberg (1984), the use of strategic ambiguity fosters a sense of “unified diversity,” which gives organizational members perceived authority while affording real interpretive power of the rules to the institution that creates them.

Recently, the NCAA announced its construction of a working group to discuss modifications to amateurism. See if you can find the strategic ambiguity in the following excerpt:

“This group will bring together diverse opinions from the membership — from presidents and commissioners to student-athletes — that will examine the NCAA’s position on name, image and likeness benefits and potentially propose rule modifications tethered to education”

If you guessed “tethered to education,” you are correct. What exactly does “tethered to education” mean? I research the NCAA and I don’t know but I can tell you what it doesn’t mean, according to another excerpt from the statement:

“While the formation of this group is an important step to confirming what we believe as an association, the group’s work will not result in paying students as employees…That structure is contrary to the NCAA’s educational mission and will not be a part of this discussion.”

So proposed amateurism modifications probably aren’t the big deal everyone thinks they are if they are “tethered to education.” At best, I’m predicting ridiculous caps on how much athletes can earn. But it’s up to the NCAA to decide because, thanks to strategic ambiguity, the Association gets the final say. We’ll see what the committee says in October.

Another interesting find from this statement is the NCAA’s appeal to education as an organizational value. It makes sense, right? An association designed to help college athletes should value education.

The NCAA isn’t the only organization that appeals to values, or “generally agreed-upon ideas of what is right or wrong or good and bad in a society” (Hoffman and Ford, 2010, p. 31).  I’m sure you can think of a number of buzzwords your places of employment use to communicate their principles and standards. Think “synergy,” “innovation,” and “inclusion.”

To be clear, an organization should always state and follow through on its values but I always cringe when the NCAA references education in its publications, especially when it is used to justify amateurism rules.

Why? One key function of value appeals is to satisfy an organization’s desire to create and maintain a sense of organizational legitimacy, which John Dowling and Jeffrey Pfeffer (1975) define as “congruence between the social values associated with or implied by their activities and the norms of acceptable behavior in the larger social system of which they are a part” (p. 122).

Here’s where values get problematic: people don’t like it when organizations don’t act out their values. According to Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrecths-Tytcea (1969), absurd, inconsistent institutions are considered unstable and once such inconsistencies are revealed, organizations strive to “avoid the charge of absurdity” (p. 195).

Last year, I wrote and presented a research paper entitled “The National Collegiate Absurdity Association” that looks at the NCAA’s “Commitments to the Division 1 Model,” which essentially guide its legislative framework. The nine commitments are: value-based legislation, amateurism, fair competition, integrity and sportsmanship, institutional control and compliance, student-athlete well-being, sound academic standards, responsible recruiting standards, and diversity and inclusion. As I’m going through the process of editing and publishing my work, I’d like to take the time to share my findings with everyone.

Here’s a brief summary: the NCAA doesn’t live up to seven out of nine of these standards (which is, by definition, absurd). I’ll let you guess the two it emphasizes the most.

For the next couple of months, I plan on taking each of these commitments and dissecting them individually so you don’t have to read a 25-page paper all at once. Specifically, I’m going to explain how and why the NCAA fails to live up to its rhetoric by using its own publications and member testimonies.

Next week, we’ll kick things off with the NCAA’s first commitment: value-based legislation. Stay tuned for more absurd content!

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