AthleticDirectorU, Athlete Viewpoint and Game Plan surveyed thousands of Division I college athletics administrators across the nation in the spring of 2022 for their views on professional burnout, exhaustion and disengagement using the publicly available Oldenburg Burnout Inventory. Read Part I of AthleticDirectorU’s survey on administrative burnout, exhaustion & disengagement here. The full survey results can be viewed here.
A picture, it’s frequently said, is worth a thousand words. Numbers, we’re often told, don’t lie.
But studying a picture of a white whale and counting the pages of Moby Dick isn’t the same as reading a 400-page allegorical novel about the whaling industry. There’s only one way to fully appreciate the nuance and subtext of what Melville had to say, and that’s by reading it. With that in mind, Part II of AthleticDirectorU’s series on athletic department burnout, exhaustion and disengagement will focus on the comments section, where professionals from throughout intercollegiate athletics explain their feelings in a way numbers, graphs and charts cannot.
With nearly 31 pages of comments, the sheer word count made fully encompassing your concerns and opinions unwieldy, but after performing a simple keyword search, specific themes began presenting themselves, particularly as they related to COVID, compensation, work-life balance, administration/management and the rapidly changing college sports environment. So, we had a starting point. Further analysis revealed enough overlap to break down your comments even further to three main categories: COVID, Culture and Compensation. All comments were submitted anonymously.
With 90 mentions, the pandemic was by far the most frequently cited factor in athletic department burnout.
“The pandemic has exposed a question and issue pivotal to the future of our profession: What incentive would anyone have to work 80 hours a week for low pay, little to no time to date, much less dream of starting a family, and engage in work environments increasingly described as toxic? When I was furloughed in 2020 I worked at Home Depot just to stay busy. I was paid by Home Depot for each and every hour I worked, worked fewer hours in a week than an SID and still made as much money as an SID.”
“I have over 24 years in college athletics experience, and I will say that I have felt a slight case of burnout maybe two to three times in my career. COVID really did a number on me mentally, and I have never felt this type of burnout before. I loved what I was doing and would get reenergized even after a long season, but I can’t get out of this funk. Sundays are the worst for me. I have Sunday Scaries every week. We have had a lot of transition over the last two years – two new bosses – then we let go of several people and have yet to rebuild our team. I try to stay optimistic for my team but it is too hard to hide the burnout anymore.”
“I fear for where this profession will be in 5-10 years because since the start of the pandemic, so many people have realized this job clearly isn’t worth the stress as well as the mental and physical toll it takes on support staff because of completely irrational expectations. Instead of hiring more assistant coaches, perhaps more thought should be given to not only increasing salaries of support staff, but also to providing them more help. The business is completely and totally out of control.”
“During the pandemic, we were asked to take on SO MUCH. Dealing with changes daily, working to protect our student-athletes’ mental and physical health, making decisions with little information available. Operations were downsized and those remaining had to pick up the slack. Most of us are still doing the work of multiple positions. We see our friends taking jobs where they can work from home and earn twice as much income. We feel unvalued. We are thanked but nothing changes to help with life balance or increased pay. All this while also tackling new challenges presented by NIL and Alston.”
For this category, we identified a wider swath of topics, including those related specifically to work-life balance, a sense of purpose, the changing landscape of college athletics, and the impact senior leaders have on morale. Here’s what you had to say:
On work-life balance:
“The demands of not just head coaches, but [also] assistant coaches, has become almost unmanageable. It was the head coach, which was expected. Now assistant coaches and directors of operations have a 24/7 line to you. They call and want you to help when you are ‘away’ from the office. I heard this saying, and it’s very applicable to the world of athletics, especially in the support services area: ‘Today’s favor becomes tomorrow’s expectation.’”
“My partner and I are both in athletics with two young children, and I am the only person in my unit while [my partner] is the head of his unit, but [because of being] short-staffed, he arrives home multiple times per week around 1-2 AM, resulting in no work-life balance for either of us. And the pay in our roles makes us question our career choices. With that said, overall we do enjoy our jobs.”
On a sense of purpose:
“Over the last 3-4 months especially, I have started to question if it’s really worth it, and I am starting to not enjoy my job as much as I have in the past. My work has become mindless, and I feel I am ready for a new challenge and in some ways. I would be open to leaving sports for a traditional 8-5. Working weekends and sacrificing family time has become far less appealing. I feel I exist to work versus working to live a meaningful life outside of that.”
“I feel less motivated to be great and look forward to going in less and less. I don’t hate my job, but I no longer find it meaningful and the negative atmosphere feels like no one ever does enough and is constantly asked to do more with little reward (financially, or emotionally).”
On the changing landscape:
“Compliance staff [are] being taxed incredibly over the last 24 months, consistently asked to do more with less, leading to lots of burnout/defection. … Changing COVID rules, changing NCAA rules, Supreme Court and other legal interventions, NIL lack of guidance, transfers, talk of unionization. All in a pressurized system hell-bent on winning at any cost and coaches calling the shots. It’s untenable. Everyone [is] looking to the Transformation Committee to provide some stability, [but] by then it might be too late for a lot of people. At least in the wild west, Wyatt Earp had a gun and a posse.”
“The unpredictability of problems that arise is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and my sense that the problems are very difficult to solve, if not impossible, while sensing that I’m still responsible for solving them, makes this job extraordinarily difficult. I used to enjoy the diversity of tasks associated with being an FBS AD, and now I find them overwhelming at times. It’s impossible to be an expert on all of the topics that are important, and it’s very difficult at the G5 level to have a staff of experts across all the challenges we are facing.”
“Leadership also contributes immensely to how I feel about work. If there are positive leaders that encourage and uplift me, I do feel more engaged and excited to go to work. The opposite can be said about negative leaders. The continued raising of expectations and pressure put on employees by senior leadership and coaches with no effort to manage them or provide more resources is exhausting many mid- to low-level employees. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this industry is in major trouble in retaining and attracting new talent.”
“[There is] not enough personnel to do all of the work, so more responsibilities are put on an employee’s plate than they can handle, which causes a vicious cycle of not being able to feel caught up on tasks, which leads to burnout. And most administrations seem to value saving money on the operations side and not pay employees what they’re worth but will spend millions on coaches and sports who are often wasteful. There also seems to be a culture of taking advantage of employees who clearly work hard and put in ridiculous hours just to get the work done but aren’t paid adequately and are expected to just keep ‘doing their best for the department’ when the department and administration clearly don’t care about employee well-being.”
“Bad leadership can take it out of me a lot quicker than the actual workload itself. We focus on student-athlete mental health and rarely talk about support for coaches, staff and administration. Sometimes it’s an hour-by-hour process to get through the day, and the grind mentality is the old school way of running a department. If leaders don’t change drastically and quickly, they will lose good people and never get them back.“
With over 50 mentions, “pay” or “money” was cited quite frequently, but it’s notable to point out that it was often mentioned alongside other factors and was, interestingly, rarely cited as the only or even the primary reason for burnout, exhaustion or disengagement.
“I think the pay is what will eventually kick me out of athletics. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor.”
“My burnout and challenges are due to leadership and the hypocrisy of college athletics. They want you to give maximum effort but with minimum resources and expect you to be successful. There’s no accountability, not to mention only the head coaches and senior administrators make money. Everyone else is making just enough.”
“College athletics is changing so fast for the worst. Coaching salaries have spun out of control, which has led to NIL and the transfer portal. It’s not the business I got into.”
“There’s a lot of pressure in intercollegiate athletics at this point in time, and a high expectation of work for little monetary reward. And while money isn’t everything, it certainly helps. In addition, when you feel like you can’t ascend into higher roles for whatever reason, it is tough to keep focus. I see more and more people leaving this industry because they are overworked and underpaid.”
“College athletics is pouring all of their money into coaches and leaving support staff on salaries that are well below the national average. … Additionally, these support staff positions require a master’s, graduate assistantship experience, and entry level experience. The salaries are far from matching. I just left my role in college athletics to make six figures and to do a quarter of the work. Nobody blowing up my phone. I can actually vacation. Work-life balance is amazing.”
Part III (and more) of ADU’s report on administrative burnout – including a look a potential solutions – will be released in the coming weeks.