Urging Presidents to Step Up

NCAA panel calls for campus chiefs to help bring fiscal sanity back to big-time college sports. History may not bode well.
October 31, 2006

For much of the past decade, and especially in the five years since Myles Brand became the first college president to lead the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the sports group has focused its efforts on passing rules aimed at ensuring that athletes in big-time sports programs get a meaningful education.

How successful those efforts have been is a matter of some debate: NCAA officials believe they've made serious progress, citing the association's new system of punishing academically underperforming teams and the steadily rising graduation rates for athletes in Division I. Some faculty leaders aren't so sure, arguing that on too many campuses, a wide gulf exists between the academic credentials and classroom experiences of athletes and other students.

But if NCAA officials and their critics disagree about how effective the academic reforms have been, they concur on one point: Getting a grip on academic issues may have been the easy part, compared to the much more difficult challenge of trying to wrestle the financial situation in big-time sports to the ground. As the costs of Division I sports programs have escalated at two to three times the rate of their colleges' other spending, and institutional subsidies to sports programs grow apace, NCAA efforts to pass legislation to control costs have run into a buzzsaw of campus opposition and a bigger problem: potential violations of federal antitrust law. What to do?

On Monday, Brand and other NCAA leaders, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, unveiled the association's answer: A report by a task force of 50 college presidents that calls for individual campus presidents -- in conjunction with their governing boards, faculties and others -- to "take reform home:" to step forward and ensure on their own campuses both the financial integrity of their sports programs and the fuller integration of sports programs with the rest of the campus.

"The solution is at the campus level -- institution by institution -- and under the leadership of presidents and chancellors, institutions must stress accountability in fiscal matters," Brand said in his speech.

As is his custom, Brand was, even as he called for reform, overwhelmingly bullish on the state of college sports. (The fact was not lost on many of those in the room that his speech came as a deadline looms early next month for the NCAA to respond to a Congressman's critical questions about whether college sports continues to deserve its tax-exempt status.) "There is no crisis in intercollegiate athletics," he said. "Some would argue that intercollegiate athletics, because of its enormous popularity, is at the height of success. Stadiums and arenas are full, and new facilities are coming on line; viewership is increasing. Indeed, college sports is doing remarkably well."

But he and the task force, which Brand appointed last year, acknowledged that the rapidly increasing costs of big-time sports programs -- which on average are increasing faster than revenues are -- are causing what "stress in the system," Brand said. "The stress is almost certain to increase without corrective action. The pressure on universities for new expectations, rising costs of instruction and program growth, and meeting the access needs of low-income students will mean fewer and fewer dollars to help close gaps between athletics budget growth and outside resources."

The NCAA's ability to attack the problem at the national level is seriously hampered, the task force said in its report, by federal antitrust laws that have been used in the past to fight other NCAA efforts to control colleges' costs. In 1999, for example, the association paid $54.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a category of assistant coaches whose pay its members had voted to restrict. Although some legal experts have suggested that the NCAA seek an exemption to federal antitrust laws, the task force concluded that the prospects of such an exemption "is weak."

Institutions would also balk at broad efforts to tell them how they should spend their money, the task force concluded. "It is no more reasonable to establish national policy through the NCAA for how athletics dollars are allocated than it would be to drive academic budgets or program decisions for each campus through mandates from the American Council on Education or the various academic associations with which institutions are affiliated," its report said.

What the NCAA can do, Brand and the task force argue, is to arm campus leaders with the best possible financial information to guide their decision making, using a new accounting system under which sports programs would be required to report financial information to the NCAA using a common set of definitions aimed at teasing out more precisely what colleges spend on sports programs. For the first time, the reports would include capital expenditures and athletics departments’ "indirect" share of costs, for such things as energy and security, that might be borne by the institutions. Campuses would have to get independent, third-party verification of the "accuracy and completeness" of the data they submit.

That new system, combined with a set of other financial reporting requirements, would arm presidents with clear, concise and comparable data with which to make informed and thoughtful decisions. But then they must use it, the task force said, with the goal of ensuring that athletics expenditures fall into line with other spending on campuses. "Presidents must use these data to align athletics budgeting with institutional mission to to strengthen the enterprise," the task force wrote. "In effect, this is where presidential leadership and institutional accountability take hold."

Presidents alone cannot ensure financial accountability and the broader integration of athletics into the campus culture the task force calls for, though, the report suggests. Trustees and regents must delegate responsibility for managing sports programs to presidents, and not "compete with presidents for management of the program," Brand said in his speech. Faculty members, who the task force report says are too often "uninformed" and "biased" and "attack athletics unfairly" (comments that rubbed quite a few faculty readers of the report the wrong way) should be more involved in oversight of sports programs -- "as fully engaged in providing advice on planning and financial issues in athletics [as they are in] other parts of the campus."

The report is vague about what kinds of changes campus presidents should be considering to slow the rate of sports spending, but in an interview, Brand said he could see individual campus chief executives concluding that an athletics department's staff is bigger than it needs to be to accomplish its goals or that building that new stadium, and accumulating huge debt service, is unwise.

The task force report also offers a set of other "best practices" -- rather than binding recommendations or mandates -- aimed at better integrating sports programs with other departments on campus, including adding athletics directors to their presidents' cabinets and restructuring so that academic advisers for athletes report to academic, rather than athletic, administrators.

Many observers of college sports welcomed Brand's speech and the task force's report as some of the more forceful statements about the need for change in big-time college sports to emerge from the NCAA itself. Groups of college presidents, like the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities, stepped forward to praise the work of their members (which, perhaps not surprisingly, were trumpeted on the NCAA's own Web site).

The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group of faculty senate leaders from around the country who have worked with the NCAA on strengthening the faculty role in sports governance, said in a statement that much of what the task force recommended was "reasonable and practical." "The major suggestions in the report -- that university presidents exert strong campus leadership on athletic issues, that all intercollegiate athletics events, activities and actions adhere to institutional academic values and principles, that faculty be an integral part of governing the campus intercollegiate enterprise, and that uniform practices and fiscal transparency be adopted by athletic departments -- are strongly endorsed by COIA."

But most of the proposals in the task force's report suggest things that "are probably not happening at the moment on campuses," said Nathan Tublitz, an officer of the national faculty group and a professor of biology at the University of Oregon. "It would be a strong step forward if it can be implemented, and it's up to the NCAA, and the university presidents, as well as the faculty, to make this happen."

Professors at several prominent Division I campuses offered a mixed assessment of the extent to which their institutions encourage faculty involvement. Paul H. Haagen, a professor of sports law and head of the Faculty Senate at Duke University, said the faculty's role at Duke "goes considerably beyond the sorts of things that they are imagining in that report." A faculty committee sees the detailed budget of the athletics department, Haagen said, and a committee made up of faculty and administrators supervises the undergraduate admissions process, including the admission of athletes. Haagen said, though, that he believed Duke was unusual in the extent of its faculty's involvement.

Thomas Palaima, a professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, said the task force's call for faculty members to play the same role in overseeing athletics that they take toward other campus programs made sense -- but doesn't happen there. He noted, for instance, that the faculty's budget advisory committee, which with the provost reviews the university's budget throughout the year, had not examined the sports department's budget for six years. "The whole thing is an independent operation," Palaima said.

"Yes, it's all very nice and high-minded and nice sounding to say that universities should have independent faculty-chosen committees, but can you imagine the screams of outrage in athletics departments across the nation if you set up a committee and really gave it some power?" he said. "The history is that the committees that exist are powerless, and the powerlessness does not exist from the faculty's lack of interest or lack of attention."

Others noted that much of what the task force called for -- more presidential control over big-time sports, financial restraint, and the like -- mostly echoes reports of a decade or two ago by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and the NCAA's now defunct presidents' commission. and that expecting individual college presidents, acting independently, to rein in their own sports programs is a fool's errand.

"It is both hopeless and naive to think that individual presidents can rein in these costs and link college sports more tightly to academics," said James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan. "They have not done so for over a century, and despite efforts at the margin, individual presidents and institutions will never act unilaterally and risk losing athletic competitiveness. College sports is simply not the ditch presidents will ever risk dying in."

Peter Likins, who just retired as president of the University of Arizona and led the NCAA task force, acknowledged that most college presidents are "not yet" in a position in which they're likely to try to rein in their own sports programs. But armed with better financial data to combat the anecdotes an athletics director might offer up about why an institution needs to pay a coach $1 million or build a multimillion-dollar practice facility, they might be able to put up more of a fight, he said. Still, "it's going to be extremely difficult."

Duderstadt said he had reluctantly reached the conclusion that neither individual college presidents nor sports groups like the NCAA can "take on the dragon of college sports." Perhaps Congress, he said -- with its threat of changing the tax code -- "is our last hope to do something."


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