Full-court press hits athletics as students count the costs

Universities are beginning to find the price of sporting glory too high to bear, writes Jon Marcus

May 3, 2012

Credit: Getty
Big games need big investments: college sports produce huge revenues, but outside the top-ranked high-profile competitors, few universities make any money from them

"March Madness." That is the colloquial name of the weeks-long, 65-team US national university basketball tournament, which has become so big that this year it spilled into April.

Television networks broadcast the games to an audience of 140 million viewers, paying $771 million (£478 million) for the rights - far more than the huge $125 million a year brought in by the annual university football championships.

Americans wager some $2.5 billion on the outcome, according to government estimates. Even the president predicts a winner.

Many universities persist in supporting athletics, no matter how much it costs, in the hope that they will some day realise a windfall from it.

They also argue that big-time athletics programmes are important marketing and fundraising tools that ultimately support academics.

But this year, behind the cheers, has come a growing chorus of opposition to the hold athletics has over US universities.

Although the complaint is not new, it has been revived by highly publicised athletics scandals, monumental salaries for coaches and an economic crisis that has universities choosing between football teams and humanities departments - and students paying escalating fees towards the cost of athletics.

There is also growing discomfort with the fact that sponsors, broadcasters and others are profiting wildly from the talents of unpaid student athletes, many of whom never graduate.

"You have coaches making millions, conferences [university sporting leagues] making billions, and athletes not getting even a return of a real education," said David Ridpath, whose new book, Tainted Glory: Marshall University, the NCAA, and One Man's Fight for Justice, has added fuel to the fire by recounting how exposing rules violations cost him his career at the university where he worked as an assistant athletics director.

Now a national coalition of faculty called the Drake Group is bringing to the public's attention cases in which student athletes are exploited or faculty members are threatened with losing their jobs for defending academic standards in face of the objections of athletics departments.

At Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, academics at the School of the Arts and Sciences have supported by a vote of 174 to 3 a call for cuts to the $28.7 million-a-year subsidy to the athletics department, a third of which is charged to students in the form of fees.

Can you pay your way?

The University of Maryland has announced that, after being forced to lend money to its athletics department, it was cutting its men's and women's swimming and diving teams, men's tennis, women's water polo, acrobatics and tumbling - unless the teams could raise enough cash from donations to continue.

James Madison University and the University of California, Berkeley have also cut teams.

That is because, outside the top-ranked high-profile competitors, most US universities lose money on athletics.

At Maryland, for instance, only men's basketball and American football bring in more than they cost, and even that margin has been closing.

Proceeds from football are half what they were five years ago and from basketball about two-thirds.

Spending per athlete at universities in the top football division increased by 50 per cent between 2005 and 2009, while academic spending per student at those institutions rose by 22 per cent, according to the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.

Much of the rising cost of athletics departments is falling on students, whose mandatory fees for housing, food and activities - including subsidies for athletics - have increased 13 per cent faster than those for tuition between 2005 and 2009.

"It's a dog chasing its tail," said Dr Ridpath, now an assistant professor of sport management who teaches sports ethics at Ohio University. "The financial model is unsustainable."

Budgets strained

In another sign that more people may be coming to the same conclusion, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees university athletics, has started looking for a public relations agency to help "boost awareness and advocacy for the positive values of intercollegiate athletics".

"It's finally gotten to a point where the NCAA is recognising that the court of public opinion is not buying the story it's trying to sell," said Jason Lanter, president of the Drake Group and an assistant professor of psychology at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

And if that was true in the good times, it has become more pronounced as budgets are strained.

"We're at a time when universities are cutting, or at least fighting to stay where they are, and people see the athletics budgets continuing to expand," said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, who has studied the issue.

"I'm starting to think that the forces of reform are at least winning the rhetorical upper hand," Dr Vedder said.

"But it's an empirical question as to whether...the level of anger is equal to or greater than the joy people get in watching these sports."

Cash-crunched states attack academic perks

A prized benefit for academics at US universities is under scrutiny as budgets are cut: free or reduced-cost tuition for their children, spouses and domestic partners.

Lawmakers in Illinois have already called for the elimination of the perk at the state's public universities to save money, and in Pennsylvania - which has sharply cut its higher-education spending - such fringe benefits have been a recurring topic at legislative budget hearings.

And while the Illinois proposal was not passed, faculty are worried.

"It is something to be concerned about, partly because, frankly, it's one of those items that's subject to a bit of grandstanding on the part of legislators, when they single out some specific item and allege that it's a huge expense to taxpayers and ought to be cut back," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the principal academics' union, the American Association of University Professors.

About 33 per cent of public and nearly 82 per cent of private universities in the US provide free or reduced-cost tuition to employees and their spouses, children and, in some cases, domestic partners. Some private universities also have reciprocal arrangements under which employees' dependants can get free or low-cost tuition at other participating institutions.

That is a contentious privilege at a time when other Americans are paying record prices for their children's education and when full professors earn median salaries of about $120,000 (£74,000) a year at public universities and just under $140,000 at private ones - nearly three times the average US household income.

"The professor who makes $300,000 to $400,000 a year can send his whole family to college for half price," said Luis Arroyo, an Illinois state representative who wanted to sharply restrict the perk. "Illinois cannot afford this any more."

But the cost of dependant tuition is comparatively modest, Dr Curtis said. In Illinois, it tots up to about $8 million a year statewide, and in Pennsylvania to about $10 million.

He added: "In almost no cases is it money that's being paid out. In virtually every case, it's just revenue that is forgone."

Proponents say that free tuition is an important recruiting tool. But critics contend that it makes scholars unsympathetic to the financial pressures on other parents and to the need for universities to hold down costs.

Dr Curtis said that faculty "are interacting with students all the time. They do understand the financial struggles students and their parents may be going through, even if their own situation may not be as difficult as some others."

Meanwhile, other states are starting to challenge another benefit for academic staff: paid sabbaticals.

The Iowa state legislature has already tightened restrictions on sabbaticals as a cost-cutting move. Dr Curtis said that is self-defeating, because research begun by staff on sabbaticals can bring in lucrative grant funding to their institutions.

He added: "In that case it's even less well considered, because it's been demonstrated that the cost of providing a leave for a faculty member is outweighed by a factor of several times in terms of the return that comes in through new research grants."

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