NCAA Scholarly Colloquium: ideology versus “In God we trust; everyone else should bring data”

The Chronicle of Higher Education examines how much criticism of the NCAA will be allowed at its upcoming annual Scholarly Colloquium and includes a fascinating quote about how data should be used:

The colloquium was the brainchild of Myles Brand, a former NCAA president and philosopher who saw a need for more serious research on college sports. He and others believed that such an event could foster more open dialogue between the scholars who study sport issues and the people who work in the game.

Mr. Brand emphasized that the colloquium should be data-based and should avoid ideology. “Myles always used to joke: ‘In God we trust; everyone else should bring data,'” said Mr. Renfro, a former top adviser to Mr. Brand.

But as Mr. Renfro watched presentations at last year’s colloquium, which focused on changes the NCAA has made in its academic policies in recent years, he did not see a variety of perspectives.

“I was hearing virtually one voice being sung by a number of people … and it was relatively critical of the NCAA’s academic-reform effort,” he said. “I don’t care whether it was critical or not, but I care about whether there are different perspectives presented.”

This is a classic argument: data versus ideology, facts versus opinions. This short bit about Myles Brand makes it sound like Brand thought bringing more data to the table when discussing the NCAA would be a good thing. Data might blunt opinions and arguments and push people with an agenda to back up their arguments. It could lead to more constructive conversations. But, data is not completely divorced from ideology. Researchers choose what kind of topics to study. Data has to be collected in a good manner. Interpreting data is still an important skill; people can use data incorrectly. And it sounds like an issue here is that people might be able to use data to continue to criticize the NCAA – and this does not make the NCAA happy.

Generally, I’m in favor of bringing more data to the table when discussing issues. However, having data doesn’t necessarily solve problems. As I tell my statistics classes, I don’t want them to be people who blindly believe all data or statistics because it is data and I also don’t want them to be people who dismiss all data or statistics because they can be misused and twisted. It sounds like some of this still needs to be sorted out with the NCAA Scholarly Colloquium.

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