Presidents Losing Sense of Control Over Sports

John Thelin published an op-ed in the Lexington Herald Leader on November 8, 2009, relating to the financial issues facing intercollegiate athletics. Thelin is a University of Kentucky professor in the Educational Policy Studies Department. His opinion is below:

“National Collegiate Athletics Association’s big sports are in big trouble.

That’s the sobering news from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, chaired by Brit Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland, a former University of Kentucky math major and football star. His father, “Ab” Kirwan, served UK between 1938 and 1969 as a professor, dean, football coach, and president.

On Oct. 23 in Miami, Kirwin convened several presidents and athletic directors to discuss problems in the costs and financing of intercollegiate athletics in the NCAA’s powerful Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). I was there as an invited speaker representing a faculty perspective. At the start of the conference, the Knight Commission released an alarming report based on a survey of 119 presidents and athletic directors of FBS universities.

“Presidents believe they have limited power to effect change on their own campuses regarding athletics financing and the larger problems it has created, much less for the FBS as a whole,” according to the report.

One president observed, “Presidents and chancellors are afraid to rock the boat with boards, benefactors and political supporters who want to win, so they turn their focus elsewhere.”

This led Peter Likins, retired president of the University of Arizona, to say that the question is not if — but when — big-time NCAA sports programs will face a collapse in financing and leadership.

Likins thinks that powerful programs are in jeopardy because their commercial success will bring IRS scrutiny. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to describe a sports program based on television revenues, sky boxes, trademark royalties and ticket sales as qualifying for a tax exemption as an educational activity.

University presidents were candid about the shaky financial outlook. Today, only 19 out of 120 big-time athletics programs operate in the black. Most presidents agreed that salaries for football and men’s basketball coaches were excessive — but that they, as presidents, were not able to stop the extravagance.

It also means presidents are having trouble justifying the gap in salaries between coaches and those faculty and staff outside the athletics department. To compound the problem, there’s little evidence that successful fund-raising for intercollegiate athletics generates increased donations for academic areas.

There were a few promising signs.

I was impressed by Gene Smith, athletics director at Ohio State. He reported that OSU has the largest athletics budget in the nation — more than $120 million a year to support 36 varsity sports teams. In addition to winning numerous national and conference championships, however, the athletics department also strongly supports the institution’s educational mission through some very hands-on practices. Smith emphasized two key guidelines:

  • All athletics dollars are university dollars. The OSU president, not the athletics director nor an athletics association, makes the decision on all spending. This helps protect the integrity of the athletics department and makes sure that alumni and donors stay focused on the university’s academic priorities.
  • The athletics department showed its commitment to the educational mission by providing $29 million last year to the university’s general educational fund. This included $3 million for the school’s library — with a pledge to contribute another $3 million next year — and $3 million the year after.

Why does this matter?

It shows that a university can be excellent in academics and athletics. OSU — as with all universities in the Big Ten Conference — belongs to the most prestigious group of research universities in the nation: the Association of American Universities.

In contrast, only two out of 12 universities in the Southeastern Conference — Vanderbilt and Florida — have been invited to join the AAU, even though most aspire to join its ranks.

Being invited to speak at the Knight Commission conference was an honor. And, it was refreshing to see presidents and athletics directors from outstanding universities engage in critical, informed discussions about problems facing universities and their athletics programs for all higher education in the United States.”

Let’s hope this national forum kindles interest here at home.