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Alan Zaremba is an expert in organizational and crisis communication and has spent the past two years researching communication challenges in college athletic departments. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

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.”