ACC should reduce travel for athletes in non-revenue sports

More than a few ACC football fans have become familiar with that Mecca of college football, Notre Dame, as the legendary Fighting Irish now include ACC teams among regular foes and, with regard to more “minor” sports, are part of the conference themselves. And those fans know that Notre Dame, a plane ride to Chicago and either a bus or a car to South Bend, is not easy to visit.

But Staff Writer Andrew Carter’s opening descriptions in a story about the time athletes – including those in Olympic sports, not just football and basketball – have to spend on their sports was revealing. The Duke women’s soccer team had a game at Notre Dame on a Thursday night. So the team left Wednesday morning, via a plane, and rode a bus to Notre Dame. They played the game, rode a bus back to Chicago, and caught a plane home. They got back Friday.

The huge money that college athletics bring to schools is undeniable. But is it wagging the dog? The Atlantic Coast Conference rewards 14 member schools with an average of more than $26 million annually. That makes it, practically speaking, highly unlikely that ACC schools are going to cut back schedules or traveling when it comes to the big money sports of football and basketball.

But what about those so-called Olympic sports, those such as lacrosse and soccer and others that, because they’re part of “big-time” programs, also require extensive travel? Participation in those sports is valuable to students who love them as part of their college experience, and there’s nothing wrong with schools expanding their scholarship offerings.

But why not, instead of treating those athletes like all others in terms of the expected travel, form regional conferences-within-conferences that would confine travel to more manageable areas? Have one region confined to North and South Carolina and perhaps Virginia. Have another that would include South Bend, Louisville, Boston College. Make the travel more sensible, and make the competition make sense.

Duke Professor Orin Starn has worked at the university for 26 years and is sounding no soft alarms about the toll travel takes on athletes in all sports. He says every year athletes “collectively miss classes by the thousands” because of games and matches.

Starn teaches anthropology. “Athletes,” he said, “in my introductory course this semester have missed almost a hundred classes between them. They are delightful, hard-working kids, but they don’t have time to do much more than pass. You can’t get much from a class missing so many lectures.”

Indeed, professors at schools of all sizes often praise athletes from Olympic sports as being good and ambitious and hard-working students. Typically, because of their busy schedules, they have to be highly organized. But they’re simply pushed too hard because of travel – and while it might be fun to go to Notre Dame, is it really worth spending several days in transit for one game?

School presidents, who sadly have ceded too much authority to directors of athletes, need to reassert themselves. A plan for regional competition is one way to curb travel; shorter schedules for some sports might be another. There are alternatives, and administrators need to look at them, rather than throw up their hands and allow that they really can’t do anything. They can. If they will.