Power Schools Call the Tune in This Latest Grab for Cash

On June 12, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an article noting the timely impact of the upcoming Knight Commission report about the finances of college sports, particularly in relation to the recent decision by instituions to jump from one conference to the next. The commentary, from Rachel Blount, stated:

“Following the conference expansion saga has become a national parlor game over the past few weeks, rife with suspense, speculation and a conspiracy theory or two. With all that intrigue still unfolding, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics isn’t likely to capture much attention for the report it plans to issue Thursday.

[The Knight Commission report] ought to be required reading for all of those college presidents and athletic directors engaged in this latest cash grab. In a stroke of coincidental yet brilliant timing, the commission will address the topic of unsustainable growth in spending on college sports. That lack of fiscal discipline — not to mention the skewed priorities that have placed athletics above academics — is the root of this off-key rendition of major-conference musical chairs. The power schools are calling the tune, and they’ve proven they are willing to sacrifice tradition and the common good to make sure they get the golden seats when the music stops.

Expansion is happening solely to generate more money for bloated athletic budgets. It’s a self-inflicted problem created by schools that capitulated to the demands of coaches such as Pete Carroll, who earned $4.4 million a year heading USC’s football program. Before leaving the school — just sanctioned for NCAA violations under his watch — he was the highest-paid employee of any private university in the United States. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported Carroll’s salary, also noted that Mack Brown of Texas, Urban Meyer of Florida and Bobby Bowden of Florida State each earned about four times more money in 2006-07 than the presidents of their universities.

Most schools can’t afford to pay for those alpha coaches and the plush new facilities, highly paid staff and other expensive trappings deemed necessary to ”compete.” The NCAA reported that in 2007-08, 93 of 119 schools with Division I football ran deficits in their athletic departments, with average losses of $9.9 million. But instead of containing costs, they continue to feed the beast.

Which puts us where we are today. By going to the Big Ten, with its lucrative TV network, Nebraska stands to make about $22 million a year from league revenues — about twice what it got as a member of the Big 12. The Big Ten and its other members will make more money by adding a big-name football program and a conference championship game. Ditto for the Pac-10 and the Big 12 schools it’s poaching.

None of this will make college football better. It will further enrich the already wealthy schools while starving programs such as Iowa State and Kansas, which are likely to end up in conferences that earn less money than they need to keep pace. Traditional rivalries, the lifeblood of the sport, will diminish. The wide geographical reach of larger conferences mean longer road trips — which cause athletes to miss more classes — and more travel expense.

Throughout the expansion discussions, a handful of conference commissioners and administrators have tried to claim that academics factor into all of this. In truth, this new landscape just proves that big-time college sports have less and less in common with the educational mission of their universities. While students struggle with rising tuition costs and public schools see their funding cut, governors, state legislators and U.S. senators finally jumped into action last week — to protect their state universities’ athletic interests.

This week’s Knight Commission report isn’t likely to inspire confidence that things will change. In 2009, a Knight study found that college presidents support reform but that they don’t believe they have enough clout to do anything about runaway athletic costs. The presidents feel the big money generated by some sports has lessened their authority to control them, the study said, and they doubt that conference officials will make any decisions that run counter to the interests of the most powerful schools.

In other words, they’ve all but conceded. Maybe it’s time to drop all the pretense and just allow the athletic departments to operate as separate entities — and while we’re at it, pay the athletes who actually generate all this cash. And when the next round of expansion/realignment happens, we shouldn’t be so shocked, because greed and envy will never go away.

The president of fictional Huxley College, one Quincy Adams Wagstaff, once proclaimed he hoped to “build a university our football team can be proud of.” That line was funny when Groucho Marx said it in the movie “Horse Feathers” in 1932. Now that it reflects life so keenly, it’s harder and harder to laugh.”