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When poor communication leads to crisis

Poor communication can be a source of crisis for any organization, but sports organizations are especially vulnerable because of their visibility, according to Alan Zaremba, associate professor and associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

“If something happens here with a faculty member, that is a problem,” Zaremba explained, “but if something happens with a coach, like one of them berating a player, it’s on the front page of The Boston Globe.”

Zaremba discussed the communication challenges that college athletic departments face on Tuesday afternoon in the Raytheon Amphitheater. His talk served as the seventh and final installment this summer of the “Minds Over Matters: NUterm Faculty Speaker Series.”

The series, which launched in May, features weekly presentations by top faculty scholars who discuss their research and examine innovation, new discoveries, and timely topics of global importance.

Zaremba is an expert in organizational and crisis communication and has spent the past two years researching communication challenges in college athletic departments.

“We feel that if we can identify the challenges that exist in athletic departments, we might be able to develop some type of protocol that preempts crises that are the result of poor communications,” Zaremba said.

In his lecture, Zaremba analyzed the communication lapses in a recent college athletic department scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2011, accusations surfaced of academic fraud over a 20-year period, during which some 3,100 UNC students, many of them student-athletes, were reportedly enrolled in “paper classes.” A series of critical reviews concluded that attendance was not required and the only assignment was one leniently-graded paper. The reviews further reported that student-athletes were funneled into the “paper classes” to preserve their academic eligibility to compete in their sports.

Zaremba referenced multiple communication principles to better explain how poor communication led to the crisis. He said that most people look at “communication” from a transmission perspective, meaning how messages are sent and received.

In the UNC case, Zaremba said the seed to this crisis was “irrational and insulting messages” that were transmitted and received, messages such as “the student-athletes need this” and “this is good for the program.”

A key to effective organizational communication, Zaremba noted, is having permeability among different departments so they can easily get messages to one another and work interdependently. He said that based on the reactions of men’s basketball head coach Roy Williams and others to the UNC crisis, there appeared to be no permeability in the athletic department.

“The head basketball coach said he was dumbfounded by this,” Zaremba said. “That’s tough to believe, but if he was dumbfounded there couldn’t have been upward networks of communication.”

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