Disturbing trends as colleges spend even more on athletics

December 5, 2013 

There’s a little bit of irony here. The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees got a request from the Department of Athletics for a fee increase to help cover the cost of travel for sports teams given the expanded membership of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

After students protested – and in a context where the president of the United States and members of Congress are urging universities to rein in charges in order to make higher education more affordable – trustees didn’t consider the proposal.

Now, the News & Observer reports on a database released by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics that showed spending on athletes went up between 2005 and 2011. At UNC-Chapel Hill, academic spending per student declined 12 percent in that period with dollars adjusted for inflation. Spending per athlete grew by 30 percent and per football player by 56 percent.

Naturally, The N&O sought comment from UNC-CH Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham. He was reached by phone because he was traveling with the school’s basketball team in Michigan.

Cunningham’s viewpoint, to be fair, is not his alone. Athletic directors bring their own perspective here, and his attitude toward the Knight Commission data reflects that of others in “big time” sports schools. He doubted the usefulness of the information. The statistics, he said, could be used to bolster “the story the Knight Commission is trying to create.”

That will cause some unfriendly tremors in Chapel Hill and elsewhere, because the commission was co-chaired for years by William Friday, the late president emeritus of the UNC system. He and his co-chair Father Ted Hesburgh, emeritus president of Notre Dame, are supremely respected figures in the history of American higher education.

The Knight Commission, contrary to what Cunningham apparently believes, isn’t trying to create a story. It spent years taking testimony from coaches, athletic directors and university presidents to find ways to protect academic integrity in college athletes and, yes, to raise alarms about out-of-control spending ramped up by television revenue.

Cunningham says the data need to be considered in the context of the university’s total budget. Though he is welcome to argue about how the data are used, he’d be foolish to write off the information as merely part of a “story” the group is writing.

Many athletic directors, themselves paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and benefits, argue that the big money that comes to major universities for football and basketball TV rights helps pay for other sports. True enough, but that creates a cycle requiring universities to seek more and more money to pay for those other sports as travel budgets increase.

Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and (uh, oh, Mr. Cunningham) co-chairman of the Knight Commission, says, “We already see levels of spending at some universities that require them to divert substantial resources from their core academic responsibilities.” His flagship school in College Park cut back on other sports, from men’s cross country to tennis and swimming.

The fever to “have it all” in terms of 25 or more sports besides men’s football and basketball requires treatment with more and more dollars.

Universities often say they believe they can have big-time sports and top-notch academics, but scandals in recent years cast doubt on that. Or, university leaders boast of their academic excellence and rankings and simply try to ignore the problems in athletics departments that market a university’s good name to apparel companies or television broadcasts.

This database of dollars shows a disturbing trend, all the more troubling because the expense of a college education for an average middle class student has far outpaced inflation. It’s hard to square that with the commission’s figures showing how universities are spending so much more on athletes than on other students. This will prompt even more questions that demand answers.

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