On college sports, curb the excesses not the enthusiasm

December 12, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the Greensboro News & Record:

Raise your hand if you cheered (or jeered) well past your bedtime during North Carolina’s improbable upset of No. 1 Michigan State in college basketball.

Or if you barked instructions to players and coaches through your TV screen – as if someone might listen. Or if your college choice was influenced by the prowess of one or more of its athletic teams.

And raise your hand if you can name all five starters on your alma mater’s hoops team but fewer than five of North Carolina’s 13 representatives in Congress and not one endowed professor anywhere.

The point is, sports matter to colleges because they matter to us. They help schools lift their profiles, raise money, increase admissions and stir alumni passions.

Even so, that doesn’t excuse the spiraling excesses in collegiate sports, which threaten the core missions and integrity of those institutions. A case in point: the obscene amounts of cash these school invest in athletics versus what they spend on academics. For instance, UNC-Chapel Hill increased spending per athlete between 2005 and 2011 by 30 percent while it spent 12 percent less per student on academics during the same time frame. Per Tar Heel football player, Carolina spent 56 percent more, according to a database compiled by the reform-minded Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

At N.C. State, per-student academics spending rose 2 percent, while its per-athlete spending rose by 16 percent and football expenses spiked by 85 percent.

The trend holds at smaller public schools as well. At UNCG, per-student academic spending rose 13 percent; per-athlete spending jumped 63 percent. At N.C. A&T, it jumped 33 percent for academics, 94 percent for athletics.

Some of that excess can be traced to high coaching salaries and higher travel costs incurred in the wake of conference expansions. And some involves attempts to keep up with the Joneses in recruiting wars for star players with bigger stadiums and plusher training facilities.

And who are the Joneses? How about Ohio State, which spends a whopping $381,000 per football player versus $134,211 at N.C. State and $144,747 at UNC-CH?

Beyond the moral questions these mounting stacks of cash raise, there’s a more fundamental problem: It’s not sustainable. “The business model of big-time college athletics is primarily broken,” University of Michigan Athletics Director Dave Brandon told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 2012.

Some defenders of this ticking fiscal time bomb point to TV revenues as justification for the investment, but that money apparently goes only so far. Otherwise, why would UNC-CH’s athletics department have asked for a student fee increase to cover higher travel expenses?

Students were right to protest (talk about an upset), and the school’s trustees were right not to even consider the request.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what’s wrong here. Good thing, too. He or she probably wouldn’t make as much as the football coach.

MCT Information Services

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