Deborah Stroman has had an inside look at the world of college sports. And she doesn’t like what she sees.
She was a college athlete on the University of Virginia women’s basketball team in the 1980s and was an assistant coach for the UNC women’s team. She owned a sports consulting business and currently teaches sports entrepreneurship at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business.
Stroman thinks big-time sports on college campuses is out of control. “I believe this train is down the track,” she says. “We can continue to work on it and reform it, but I don’t think we can pull it back.”
Stroman spoke at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. She described a world where a handful of Division 1 colleges exploit young men, mostly African-American and many unprepared for college, in pursuit of national championships and mega-million-dollar TV and sports marketing deals.
Stroman, tongue halfway in cheek, lists five conditions that colleges must meet to become football powerhouses:
▪ Admit large numbers of athletes – 30 to 40 – who are not prepared to do college work. Ideally, they would be provided with a support system to help them succeed, but too often that doesn’t happen.
▪ Create a culture where faculty and administration “ask fewer questions of athletics and let the athletic director and football coach run the show. The idea is, if you’re going to go for that national championship, you really need to leave the athletics department alone.”
▪ Devote more resources to facilities and equipment to attract elite athletes. (UNC just approved construction of a $25 million indoor football practice facility.)
▪ Co-opt the local media. “Convince local reporters to bend the rules of journalistic impartiality … you don’t get front-page headlines when Johnny the jerk linebacker does something stupid.”
▪ Pump massive dollars into the marching band, the cheerleaders, the pep band, and all the sideline glitter that adds to the winner brand.
Only a handful of colleges, Stroman says, are prepared to “go all in” to achieve that level of success. Among them – Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Oregon. Not among them – UNC and most ACC universities, which all lose money on their athletics programs.
At UNC, athletics generates about $85 million a year, mostly from football, that helps fund 26 varsity teams. By comparison, Texas and Alabama have twice as much money and 16 and 17 teams respectively.
Stroman raises other disturbing questions. One is what she calls the “browning of football” – the increasing proportion of minorities on college teams. There are two reasons: the perception of football among lower-income families as a ticket to NFL riches, and the increasing concern among higher-income families about the safety of football.
The result, she says, is that black athletes on football (and basketball) teams are generating the revenue to allow middle-class, mostly white kids to play sports like softball, fencing and field hockey: “You have black young men paying the bills for suburban white students to have a top-notch athletics experience.”
Stroman believes athletics still brings benefits to the university. But she doesn’t hold out much hope for reversing the commercialization of big-time programs. “The money is everywhere,” she said. “Everybody has got their tentacles in it, from corporate America to local elementary schools to our own households.”
Several thoughts occur to me as I digest Strohman’s observations. One is the latest salary figures recently released by UNC. While some decry the high salaries handed out to Chancellor Carol Folt and her assistant chancellors, her $570,000 is eclipsed by the $642,268 paid to Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham. (And his pales compared to the millions paid to the basketball and football coaches).
The other thought is prompted by the creation of a new “Chief Integrity Officer” at UNC to ride herd over the athletics department to prevent, hopefully, future “paper class” scandals.
That notion strikes me as a symbolic gesture – creating a bureaucracy to do what a chancellor should be doing anyway.
It reminded me of the time when a former chancellor had to rein in the most popular coach in UNC history. Dean Smith is rightly regarded as a paragon of integrity, the inspiration of “the Carolina Way.”
In 1993, Smith shook the college sports world by shifting his team’s sponsorship from Converse to Nike. But the coach refused to make public the terms of the contract – how much he and the university would be paid for agreeing to wear the Swoosh on team uniforms. (Smith donated most of his $500,000 payment to charity.)
Then-Chancellor Paul Hardin forced Smith to release the contract, saying that was required by NCAA rules and public records laws. A chagrined Smith did so, but he maintained a chilly attitude toward Hardin thereafter.
Hardin later said he continued to respect Smith’s integrity but the coach was simply mistaken in the Nike case: “I was right and he was wrong.”
That was a chief integrity officer.
Ted Vaden is a former editor and publisher of The Chapel Hill News. Readers may contact him in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org