Most Colleges Are Playing a Losing Game with Athletic Spending

An article by Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson questioned the decisions made in higher education institutions with respect to their athletic departments. Jackson pointed to recent child sexual abuse allegations, NCAA rules-breaking of cash payments to college football players and recruiting violations, and other major scandals while the vast amounts of money generated by major college football and men’s basketball continues to escalate. Jackson used recent data produced by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and the Delta Cost Project to help state his case about the concerns about the financial model of intercollegiate athletics.

The article stated concerns about “cash under the table to child sexual abuse, the culture of big-time college sports has grown unconscionably beyond its moorings as a student activity and the normal controls of universities. It is increasingly corrupting prestigious public and private institutions that boast impeccable graduation rates, either through insular arrogance in athletic programs or by the chasing of conference and television dollars by college presidents.”

The current culture and ability to generate significant revenue in football and men’s basketball raises concerns over whether or not college athletics is an amateur enterprise. Jackson writes, “Debate is reaching the unavoidable stage where either the college superpowers must break off and go pro or for college sports to miraculously take many steps backwards to save the student-athlete enterprise.”

To explain the amount of revenue being generated, the article pointed to data made public by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in its October 2011 meeting. Jackson noted that the decisions in college athletics are increasingly driven by raising greater revenues, referring to $14 billion minimum in current media contracts of five of the six athletic conferences whose football champion automatically qualifies for the lucrative Bowl Championship Series: The Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12 and Atlantic Coast Conferences. In addition to the increasing rise in coaching salaries, Jackson also pointed to data produced for the Knight Commission by Jane Wellman, the executive director of the Delta Cost Project, a leading nonprofit analyst of higher education spending, recently found that median spending per athlete rose 50 percent between 2005 to 2009, from $60,700 to $91,000. That is more than double the rise in median academic spending per student, which stands at only $13,500. The spending is hugely driven by the salaries of coaches and staff.

Jackson proposed several recommendations to be adopted by the NCAA:

  • Coaches should never be paid more than top administrators or faculty members.
  • Players must maintain proper grade-point averages to compete.
  • TV revenues should be used to bolster all university programs, not to build palace-like stadiums and pro-quality clubhouses and offices for coaches.
  • Teams that grossly violate NCAA rules should face a “death penalty” ban of at least a year, a penalty not meted out since 1987 in the pay-for-play scandal at Southern Methodist.
  • Coaches of penalized programs should also face a “death penalty” that blocks them from jumping right into a new job.

The article stated that William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and co-chair of the Knight Commission, discussed potential changes in governance of the bowl system and its revenues. In addition, both Kirwan and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believe the NCAA and universities should be more transparent in letting families know where their student fees and other institutional funds are going.