Powerless, or Passing the Buck?

College presidents acknowledge major problems with big-time college sports but say they can do little to effect change, new survey finds.
October 27, 2009

College presidents recognize the need for major changes in big-time college athletics but doubt they can do anything to bring about reforms, according to a new survey of campus leaders released Monday by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics at a meeting to mark the group's 20th anniversary.

Ninety-five college presidents whose institutions compete in the 119-member Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly Division I-A) of the National Collegiate Athletic Association were asked a set of qualitative and quantitative questions this past spring and summer about the costs and financing of intercollegiate athletics at their institutions.

Though two-thirds of the presidents expressed optimism that their athletics programs would remain financially sustainable in their current form, less than half expressed similar optimism for many of the other institutions in their conference. More telling of the presidents’ global concerns about big-time college athletics, less than a quarter thought athletics were sustainable at institutions that play in the bowl subdivision nationally.

Of those presidents who reported that the financial sustainability of athletics is a problem at their institutions, more than 80 percent preferred “wide, sweeping action involving all FBS institutions to address sustainability issues.” A comparable percentage of presidents from institutions not concerned about their athletics stability said they would support far-reaching reforms of a similar nature.

Details from the qualitative portion of the survey suggest that presidents find skyrocketing coaches’ salaries to be “the greatest impediment to sustainability.” Eighty-five percent of the presidents believed that “compensation was excessive for football and basketball coaches.”

“In terms of control over big-time college athletics, I don’t believe we have control,” said an anonymous president cited in the Knight report. “Show me a president who won’t meet the demands of a winning coach who has the chance to walk out the door for a higher salary someplace else.”

While 65 percent of the presidents noted that their authority over coaches’ salaries has diminished as the use of private money to compensate coaches has increased, the same percentage expressed their opposition to “change federal legislation to allow some level of control on coaching staff,” such as a federal antitrust exemption for the NCAA that might allow its member colleges to limit pay.

“If you try to control the excesses, you into an antitrust threat,” said an anonymous president cited in the Knight report. “I don’t think seeking changes in federal laws on these matters is a good idea. I’m afraid the market drives everything.”

Though presidents felt their hands were tied regarding steep coaches’ salaries, they did express interest in other potential reforms to save money. Nearly two-thirds of the presidents said they would be open to policy changes that would “reduce the number of sports-specific personnel, other than coaches or academic support.” A similar percentage reported they would be open to policy changes that would “reduce the number of contests for non-revenue generating sports.” Almost half expressed an interest in a similar reduction of games for “revenue-producing sports” (typically football and basketball).

Thirty-three percent responded that they would be amenable to policy changes that would reduce the number or amount of scholarships for “non-revenue generating sports.” Forty-two expressed interest in a similar reduction in scholarships for “revenue-producing sports.”

The prospect of revenue distribution among institutions provoked a significant disparity in responses from the presidents. Ninety-five percent of presidents from non-Bowl Championship Series conferences -- those that do not receive automatics bids or financial incentives for postseason football appearances -- said that they would like BCS funds distributed differently to include them. On the other hand, only a third of presidents from BCS conferences expressed openness for this type of change. Though the NCAA does use money from its championships -- most which are generated by the Division I Men's Basketball Tournament -- to support a range of purposes and a range of institutions across its membership, it does not control payouts from the BCS.

A number of presidents, particularly those from non-BCS conferences, expressed concern about a “widening gulf” between the “haves” and “have-nots” in college athletics.

“Our athletic program is always on the edge; we start in the hole and make it up over the year,” said an anonymous president cited in the Knight report. “Those of us not in the BCS conference simply do not get the same kind of revenue that BCS conferences get. We make up our budget shortfall by increasing gifts, building attendance, or making budget reductions during the years. I don’t know how long this can go on.”

Despite this apparent gulf, nearly two-thirds of all presidents reported having made athletics budget cuts last fiscal year. A similar percentage also believed “cuts to athletics have been proportional to cuts in other programs across the university.” As a result, 48 percent of the presidents admitted they may have to reduce the number of sports their institutions offer in the future if the current outlook does not change significantly.

“If the economy recovery doesn’t happen in the next year or two, several schools will do away with football at the least and maybe their entire athletics programs at the worst,” said an anonymous president cited in the Knight report.

For all of the concerns expressed by the presidents in the survey, most of them feel they have little or no power to effect change in big-time college athletics. Most believe that an antitrust exemption is a “political impossibility" and that “lucrative television contracts” have weakened their authority over athletics; most do not think their conferences will reform if their actions are perceived as being “against the self-interest of the most successful conference institutions.”

The Knight report frames the dour disposition of many presidents this way: "Despite widespread concern over financial stresses created by the ‘arms race’ and exacerbated by the recession, the most common sentiment expressed by president regarding current levels of spending was their desire to increase rather than opt out of the system or push for systemic change.”

Most of the presidents surveyed in the report noted that they think the NCAA is “too bureaucratic” and “lacks the will or authority to effect significant change.”

“The NCAA is out of control,” said an anonymous president cited in the Knight report. “You can get in trouble without knowing it. Their rules are like the IRS tax code. It’s unfair to the institution and to the athletes. Two kids do something wrong, the whole team is punished. They’re supposed to be advocates for student-athletes. But they don’t get it. They have no incentive to cooperate, and that’s offensive when you pay them dues.”

Leaders from the Knight Commission said they did not think the college presidents surveyed in their report were sidestepping major issues in athletics by saying they felt like their actions could not influence change.

“Presidents don’t believe their own actions, independent of other institutions, will be effective,” said William E. (Brit) Kirwan, the commission's co-chair and chancellor of the University System of Maryland. “What I get out of all of this is that there’s a very clearly stance that [reform] will require a collective effort.… I believe there’s a consensus that things have to change.”

Some critics, however, believe the Knight report simply illustrates how college presidents are only helping perpetuate such problems.

“I’m surprised that college presidents feel they have limited power to alter their programs,” said Nathan Tublitz, co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a collection of faculty senate leaders from major campuses, and professor of neuroscience at the University of Oregon. “There’s plenty they can do.… Presidents are being wimpy when it comes to this subject, and they’re being somewhat hypocritical. For the past eight years, under the leadership of Myles Brand, the presidents have pushed for a greater role in the NCAA. Now that they have more power, they’re saying the NCAA can’t do anything to improve matters. ... Why don't some presidents just come out and take a stand?”


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