In the midst of March Madness, we can debate which team is No. 1 now, but it doesn’t really matter, because when it’s all said and done, one team will win the national championship.
In college athletics, there’s something more maddening than March Madness, but the public doesn’t seem to care.
While college tuition increases grab the headlines, the rise in what top football-playing universities spend on athletes is even steeper.
The amount of athletics spending per athlete at universities in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) grew by about 50 percent between 2005 and 2010, compared to a 38 percent increase in in-state tuition at public four year-universities, according to a report released by Delta Cost Project, a branch of the American Institutes for Research.
By now, if your eyes haven’t glazed over, you may be thinking, “Who cares?”
There’s the rub. Who cares? Apparently no one, as long as his or her university is competitive in football, aka the 800-pound gorilla.
The report claims the growth in per-athlete athletic spending outpaced the growth in per-student academic spending over that time period in all subdivisions of Division I athletics.
In general, universities and colleges at the Division I level tended to spend roughly three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as on academics per student, with the ratio exceeding 12 times in the Southeastern Conference, home of the last seven NCAA national champions in football. Surprised?
Of course, if Johnny is a talented football player, it’s all well and good. If Johnny wants to be an elementary school teacher, it’s too bad.
Universities with Division I football will argue that athletics benefits the entire institution, including donations, applications, regional economic returns, school spirit and even state support.
TV revenues are great. Bigger and better stadiums are being built. Competition is what sports are all about.
But as the Delta report points out, “Possible benefits aside, comparisons of spending on athletics and academics raise questions about institutional priorities and whether rising athletic subsidies are appropriate, particularly in the current budgetary environment. For many institutions, spending on athletics is sacrosanct, even when academic spending (such as for faculty pay and academic programs) is being cut or frozen.”
In addition, the report notes, as have many others, that most athletic departments are not self-supporting. Only one in four institutions in the FBS generated more money than it spent in any given year between 2005 and 2010, the report states, with almost none of the FCS or non-football programs generating a profit.
“The belief that college sports are a financial boon to colleges and universities is generally misguided,” the report states. “Although some big-time college sports athletic departments are self-supporting—and some sports may be profitable enough to help support other campus sports programs—more often than not, the colleges and universities are subsidizing athletics, not the other way around.”
It sounds and looks like a vicious cycle, where only the strongest survive. Maybe that’s OK for professional sports, but colleges should aspire to a higher ideal. Certainly their purpose is far greater than winning and losing football and basketball games.
In a New York Times op-ed in 2009, Gilbert Gaul, a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post, writes that the out-of-control spending in college athletics is caused by two factors: universities allowing athletic departments to operate independently, and the taxes, or lack of them, on income generated by college sports.
Gaul goes on to say, “If college presidents really wanted to halt the college sports machine, they could try two options. They could insist that athletic departments operate within their university budgets, like the English or biology departments; or they could ask Congress to rescind the tax breaks on the commercial income earned by athletic programs.
“From where I sit, college presidents really don’t want to take responsibility for the college sports mess. To do so would require them to offend their powerful athletic departments and alumni. It is a no-win situation. And as we already know, in college sports, winning is everything.”
Indeed, it’s time for a change in priorities, but does anyone believe those changes are imminent?