College football frenzy is peaking, soon to give way to a crescendo of basketball mania culminating in March Madness. For about 108 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, this is a distinctly mixed blessing, as intercollegiate athletics pose a drain on school finances – one that is growing steadily over time.
Schools are in an athletic arms race, feeling the necessity to spend ever more funds on high coaches’ salaries and fancy facilities lest they suffer athletic humiliation and the wrath of irate alumni and fans. According to USA Today data, more than 100 schools currently subsidize intercollegiate athletics by more than $10 million a year. The fact that the University of Florida is spending some $7 million to lure a football coach away from Colorado State shows the financial dimensions of this are huge. It is no wonder that at the recent White House college summit, Vice President Biden blasted schools for elaborate spending on stadium sky boxes.
But as President Ray Watts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently showed, it does not have to be that way. He is eliminating the school’s football program.
UAB has been a football power wannabe, playing in the shadows of its superpower state rivals, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Auburn University, which have won a majority of national championships in the past five years.
Its stadium, Legion Field, which seats almost 72,000 people, has limped along with an average attendance recently of under 15,000 fans per game. UAB takes in about $9 million in revenues from its athletics programs but spends $27 million. That $18 million loss amounts to nearly $1,000 annually for each of UAB’s 19,000 students – the equivalent of about 13 percent of the school’s in-state tuition price. Getting rid of football will eliminate some of that loss, though the school will maintain several other sports. More importantly, perhaps, the school will not have to spend tens of millions on new facilities viewed critical to remaining competitive.
Contrast the UAB experience to Ohio University, where we have some experience. Like UAB, it has a so-so football team (6-6 record) and considers a game with 15,000 attending to be pretty typical, despite its stadium capacity of 24,000. Like UAB, it plays in the shadow of a football powerhouse that regularly draws over 100,000 to its games, currently fourth-ranked Ohio State, playing UAB’s sister school Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Like UAB, OU is forced to subsidize intercollegiate sports to the tune of about $18 million a year – again, nearly $1,000 for each of its roughly 20,000 students on the Athens campus (partially disguised as part of a “student activity fee”). Both universities have medical schools. The institutional similarities are striking.
While UAB President Watts is saying “enough is enough,” Ohio President Roderick McDavis is following a more conventional path: let’s spend more to try to break into the ranks of the athletically anointed. Facing similar facility problems as UAB, OU has built a $12.5 million indoor practice facility, primarily for the football team.
It has also announced plans for an “academic center” costing more than $5 million, which will serve as a gated community of sorts where athletes but not ordinary students can study. Ostensibly, an existing study facility and the university’s library are insufficient for the athletes. Similarly, a decade ago the basketball coach made much less than McDavis, but now the coach is paid significantly more than he is.
When former Vanderbilt University President Gordon Gee made the athletic department a unit within the normal university bureaucracy, subject to all of its rules regarding budgeting and staffing, he said that if he tried to do that at Ohio State (where he also was president), he would quickly be pumping gas for a living. University presidents who try to unilaterally disarm athletics face fierce threats to job security that prevent any constructive reform to rein in college costs.
Instead, resources are misappropriated toward sports. Presidents like McDavis spend hours trying to cajole rich donors to help fund new athletic facilities when that money could finance the construction of, say, a much-needed performing arts center or more scholarships for excellent students. The crowding out of academic needs to support sports has come at a high reputational cost – OU has fallen 13 spots in the U.S. News national university listing over the past five years.
Boise State has emerged in recent years as a football power, but compares poorly with the less football-oriented University of Idaho. Despite spending more than twice as much as Idaho on athletics ($43 million versus $19 million), it loses more, and in both the Forbes and U.S. News rankings of colleges, Idaho clearly surpasses Boise. Many university presidents fail to recognize the Iron Law of Sports: when someone wins a game, someone else loses. It is impossible for a large portion of schools to achieve primacy in any given sport.
Economic pressures, however, suggest that other presidents may start biting the bullet and take the UAB route. Total college enrollments are lower today than three years ago, and high costs paired with widespread underemployment of recent college graduates are making students more price-sensitive than in the past. Passing on athletic subsidies to students in the form of higher fees is increasingly unrealistic.
The top 60 or so schools that are genuine athletic powers, about half losing $5 million or less annually on sports, are gaining control of the lucrative commercial aspects of sports through the NCAA athletic cartel. So while Watts might be catching some backlash for his decision to shut down the football program, do not be surprised if this turns out to be a recurring strategy for presidents to control costs in the future.
Additionally, the continued tales of corruption and abuse in sports that stain the reputation of higher education, such as phantom courses at the University of North Carolina, sex abuse at Penn State, and widespread cheating at other schools, should make presidents and trustees more willing to fight to withdraw from the arms race.
There is another model, where sports can be part of college life on an amateur basis without expensive coaches, ESPN television contracts, or athletic scholarships. In fact, this has been a glorious season for a New England town, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard College had an undefeated football team, and M.I.T. went 10-1, losing only in a national playoff game -- despite spending relatively modest amounts on sports. While neither school makes any list of the top 100 football powers, they are at or near the top of nearly every academic ranking.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and teaches economics at Ohio University, where Joseph Hartge is an undergraduate studying economics in the Honors Tutorial College.
A colleague of mine once asked me a rhetorical question. “What kind of magic does it take for college athletes, especially those from very disadvantaged educational backgrounds, to remain eligible when they must spend most of their waking hours training for or playing sports?”
“The magic,” he suggested, “is academic fraud.”
In his view, which I share, responsibility rests with institutional leaders whose jobs depend on currying favor with powerful alumni and other constituencies whose priority is winning national championships, not academic excellence.
Cheating scandals such as the one at the University of North Carolina are not limited to a few rogue universities. On the contrary, some violations of academic integrity are to be expected in any school that requires athletes to give so much time and attention to sports that an army of tutors and academic support personal is needed to keep them eligible. Most academic counselors are dedicated professionals, but the line between tutoring and doing athletes work for them can get a little fuzzy.
Helping athletes stay eligible becomes academic fraud when athletes’ work is done for them or when they are pushed into classes with little or no academic content.
The evidence is overwhelming that big-time college football players have little time to make college education a priority. The National Labor Relations Board in Illinois recently issued a detailed report on football at Northwestern University stating that football players “are under strict and exacting control by their coaches throughout the entire year.” Pre-season training begins six weeks before the start of the fall semester. During this period, coaches provide “hour by hour” schedules of football related activities which last from 5:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night for an average of about 50 or 60 hours per week.
The NLRB report estimated 40 to 50 hours per week during the season devoted to games, weight training, mandatory meetings, practice, and travel. Players often go to the coaches’ offices at 8 p.m. to watch game film for a couple of hours.
In a survey of college football players undertaken several years ago, the NCAA found that football players devote about 40 hours a week on football- related activities in preparation for 12 regular season games, thus reinforcing the findings at Northwestern.
Athletes recently challenged the NCAA in a number of antitrust cases. Without those challenges, the NCAA would have made no effort to introduce significant educational reforms. The athletes deserve the stipends and scholarship enhancements ordered by the judge in the antitrust case brought by Ed O’Bannon.
However, as a college professor, I am more concerned that big-time college athletes receive the educational opportunity they were promised than the compensation that comes with further professionalizing college sport. Denying athletes those educational opportunities constitutes a breach of contract.
In order to defend athletes rights to an education, the Drake Group, an organization whose mission is to defend academic integrity in college sports, has proposed educational reforms which should be embraced by every accredited institution of higher education and be institutionalized in NCAA rules and regulations where appropriate.
These reforms include:
Allow freshman eligibility for only those athletes whose high school grade point average or standardized test scores are within one standard deviation from the mean academic profile of their entering class, thus giving special admits time to adjust to a more competitive academic environment than they may be use to.
Athletes must maintain a cumulative GPR of 2.0 in order to be eligible for sports, thus sending a clear message that education gets top priority. Athletes who fall below 2.0 should be given two semesters to raise their GPA to that level or lose their athletic scholarship.
Provide extensive academic remediation for athletes who are ineligible to play as freshmen and limit their practice time to 10 hours a week. Remediation should begin in the summer before these athletes enter college.
Require that all academic and counseling support services for college athletes be under the direct supervision of and budgetary control of the institution’s academic authority, administered externally to the athletic department, and be consistent with counseling and support services for all students.
Require institutions to provide “whistle blower protections” for those who disclose unethical conduct or institutional rules violations related to the conduct of athletics programs.
Require all NCAA institutions to award multiyear scholarships that extend to graduation and that cannot be cancelled for injury or contributions to a team’s success. Cancelation should be permitted only for voluntary withdrawal or serious violations of team rules.
Require the faculty senate (or other highest faculty governance authority) to closely examine athletic department and coaches’ rules (other than those promulgated by the NCAA) to ensure they are compatible with educational best practices. Faculty should have the final say on this.
The NCAA’s 20 hour a week (4 hours a day) rule should be strictly enforced and the scholarships of players who skip supposedly “voluntary” workouts during the year to devote their time to non-athletically related activities should be protected.
Institutions should work with faculty senates to ensure that athletic contests are scheduled to minimize conflict with class attendance, and no athlete should be prohibited from taking a class that may occasionally conflict with a practice, or team meeting.
Institutions should have a tenured faculty-only Committee on Academic Oversight elected by the faculty senate to report annually to the senate on the academic progress of college athletes and, when possible, to compare such data to non-athletes. This report would list independent studies taken, grades received, and professors teaching. It would also include a list of athletes’ advisors, courses taken, faculty who taught those courses and grades received. Care would be taken to adhere to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
This is only a partial list of reforms that should be instituted. In the coming years, Congress should take a very close look at the way college sports in American higher education is governed. Perhaps the NCAA should be totally replaced by a federally chartered corporation that is willing to institute meaningful reforms that go well beyond the proposals mentioned above. America’s colleges and universities are a national treasure. Should college sport be governed by an organization that appears to have put education on the sidelines?
Allen Sack, a professor in the college of business at the University of New Haven, played on the University of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is past president of the Drake Group