• August 30, 2015

Presidents Favor Reining In Athletics Costs but Feel Powerless to Effect Change

A majority of college presidents at the nation's largest athletics programs favor sweeping change to contain the escalating costs associated with big-time college sports, but are hard-pressed to identify an entity that can achieve it.

Those are among the key findings of a new report on the financing of major-college athletics programs that was issued on Monday by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The report was based on a survey of 95 college presidents in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's most competitive grouping and was conducted last spring. The report also includes comments based on interviews with nearly a quarter of the campus leaders surveyed.

The respondents said that while major changes were needed, presidents had limited power to control the rising expenses of sports on their own campuses and at the national and conference levels.

"The real power doesn't lie with the presidents," one leader said in the report. "Presidents have lost their jobs over athletics. Presidents and chancellors are afraid to rock the boat with boards, benefactors, and political supporters who want to win, so they turn their focus elsewhere."

Those sentiments are dire news for the commission, which pushed strongly in the 1990s for a shake-up of the NCAA's leadership to put college presidents, not athletic directors, in charge.

Gerald R. Turner, president of Southern Methodist University and a co-chair of the commission, said he understood the presidents' dilemma.

"They don't believe their own actions independent of other presidents … can be effective," he said during a news conference on Monday afternoon. "Until they can feel that their conference has a unanimous sense of the issues, there's some sense of pessimism about reform."

Growing Divides

The 51-page report, released in conjunction with the commission's meeting in Miami, touches on many pressure points. The group will use the findings as the foundation for a longer report it plans to release next year.

Nearly all of the presidents surveyed said coaches' salaries in the sports of football and basketball were "excessive." They lamented a growing cultural divide between athletics and the academic side of the university, and fretted over the widening gap between wealthy athletics programs and those struggling to keep up.

Nearly eight in 10 presidents said they wanted greater transparency in the revenues and expenses associated with athletics. And while many said they were frustrated with the NCAA and its many rules, they nonetheless expected the association to play an important role in gathering additional information on finances.

Yet despite their uneasiness with rising costs—the median operating budget in Division I-A athletics departments grew by 46 percent from 2004 to 2008, to $41-million—and the growing impact of commercialism, the presidents said they were reluctant to scale back. Instead, most favored finding new sources of revenue to field competitive programs that bring attention to their universities.

Mr. Turner called that response "wishful thinking."

William E. Kirwan, the commission's other co-chair, agreed that more revenue was not going to solve the problem.

More effective, he said, would be fundamental changes in the financial model for big-time college sports. "The fiscal circumstances that our nation and our states find themselves in will provide momentum for this change," said Mr. Kirwan, who is chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "The difficult time that our universities are experiencing isn't going to go away in the short run."

Salaries Seen as Biggest Threat

Many presidents said they viewed the spike in coaches' compensation as evidence of a system that had spun out of control. In 2008, the median salary for head football coaches in Division I-A was more than $1-million, according to recent NCAA data. For head coaches in men's basketball, that figure was $735,000.

Eighty-five percent of the presidents surveyed said the salaries were "excessive," and many said the wages were the greatest impediment to long-term sustainability their programs faced.

But confronted with pressure from alumni and boosters to field winning programs, and lacking any clear legal authority to curb the salaries, most presidents said they paid up anyway.

"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," one president said.

Many campus leaders said the NCAA's failed attempt in the 1990s to restrict some coaches' salaries gave them little confidence that future regulation was possible. (A federal-court decision, upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, struck down an NCAA policy that had capped the earnings of assistant coaches as a violation of antitrust laws, and the association later settled the case for $54.5-million.)

One solution would be for Congress to grant the NCAA an exemption from antitrust laws and allow it to restrain spending in college sports. But most leaders surveyed said they felt that was politically unlikely, if not impossible.

The dominance of television contracts in determining the cash flow, as well as the rhythm, of college athletics also troubled the presidents, particularly those at colleges outside the six Bowl Championship Series conferences. Some said they were concerned about the impact of the networks' scheduling demands on their institutions, but felt unable to change because of the sheer amount of money those contracts bring in.

Disparate Cultures on Campuses

Most presidents said they wondered how long the current model for college sports—reliant on revenue from robust ticket sales, lucrative media contracts, and private donations—could be sustained.

"It seems sustainable at the moment, but it is dependent on so many things," said one president. "It's good that our athletic department supports itself, but the links between sports and private support are worrisome if our teams don't continue to be competitive. … There are so many variables."

Said another president: "We'll get to the point where we literally can't do it. And we're one of the rich schools. TV contracts won't continue to grow. The money will cut itself off."

Some presidents said they were concerned about the stark differences on their campuses between what the athletics program, bolstered by television money and private donations, can afford—and what the rest of the university can.

"The athletic association has more money and disposable money than it has ever had," one president said. "On the academic side there is less flexibility at any time since World War II. This creates very disparate cultures. Athletics can spend and do whatever it wants to do, and the academic core of the campus, which is operating under much greater constraints, sees that.

"The rationalization of those two cultures," the president continued, "is one of the most difficult things we face."

Bridging the gap between those two worlds is increasingly difficult, leaders said.

"I'm one of the … presidents with enough seniority to see the consequences," said one. "The presidents who have had their heads handed to them? A high percentage of them had that happen because it was something to do with athletics."

Yet despite their complaints, the presidents offered few solutions.

The commission floated several ideas, such as reducing the number of coaches and other sport-specific personnel for revenue sports, and changing the NCAA and BCS policies on revenue distribution. (Both proposals received support from two-thirds of the presidents surveyed.)

"I think there are a lot of heads in the sand," one president said. "A lot of presidents don't get as deeply into it as they need to."


1. jeff1 - October 26, 2009 at 04:37 pm

Wow! We are doomed! Thank you to all you strong BCS presidents who are totally addicted to the juice from this sour fruit.

2. rburns - October 26, 2009 at 04:53 pm

How worthless has a university president become? I note that they all are capable still of banking those big compensation packages. As a retired president I have to say to my current colleagues that you cannot expect faculty, staff or students to follow your lead when you sit in your sky box with the alumni and jock powers you now admit you have no way of dealing with. Do you attempt to so completely divorce yourselves from athletics when you jet to those bowl games at holiday time?

And let's not hear that old saw that athletic programs are not funded by tuition, state appropriations, or general revenues. Everybody knows that the Foundation and Athletic Association funds would be available for real education if not spent on bigger and better coach contracts, "student athletes'" perks, and other excess in your big-ticket athletic programs. And please, please, please don't tell me that college sports "teach character" or that "football is the game of life." None of you ever believed that line of crap.

At least you now confess your failures. And like a famous Roman governor you publicly wash your hands, hoping that puts an end to your responsibility. How's that working for you back on the campus?

3. _perplexed_ - October 26, 2009 at 06:06 pm

How to control big-time athletics: The AAU might require non-membership in NCAA Division I as a condition for AAU membership.

4. newyorkyankees - October 26, 2009 at 06:33 pm

College presidents are "powerless" to control big time athletics? Are they also "powerless" to turn down all the money that big time athletics brings in? Hmmm...

5. plsnyder - October 26, 2009 at 06:51 pm

What mandate do the college presidents have? How conscienable is it to pay a coach more than a Nobel prize winner? If in fact the President serves at the Academic Senate's approval, then why isn't there a coalition between the two in order to make decisions contrary to the politicians, boosters, and commercial interests?
If I were a cynic I'd say there are too many Presidents that like seeing themselves on television and being part of the of college sports entertainment more than looking out for the best interests of their students and faculty and the integrity of their institution.

6. jesor - October 26, 2009 at 07:09 pm

Most presidents I know serve at the pleasure of their respective boards of trustees, not their faculty senates. The problem doesn't lie with the president, it lies with the boards that refuse to explain to their constituencies (including sports crazed students and alumni) that the mission of a college is more than to field a sports team. I understand that trustees don't want to risk killing the goose laid the golden egg (or at least the new gold-plated research facility), but ultimately, if a board isn't willing to back a president in a conflict with the athletics department, there is little a president can do but resign quietly and hope for a job at a different school. This doesn't exactly inspire the confidence necessary to enact change at the divsion I level, especially if the board is willing to find someone that's a bit more of a "team" player.

7. rsmulcahy - October 26, 2009 at 07:54 pm

In reference to rburns comment....please, please, please don't tell me that student engagement in college athletics has nothing to teach, whether we are talking character, life skills, self-esteem (particularly for women) or any number of other positive values. Pedantic stereotyping will not further this dialog anyway. You need to separate the activities of individulas from the out-of-control juggernaut of media dollar driven sports entertainment. I totally agree that college presidents prefer to wring their hands and disingenuously claim that they can't get the beast back in the cage. But let's step away from what the "adults" in control are doing and not throw out the good with the bad. Most universities support somewhere between 15-25 sports and I think we know the two that generate all the controversy: football and basketball. Even there, I think the student-athletes are learning an incredible amount above and beyond what they get in the classroom. But if you think that a woman's crew student who gets up every morning at 5 AM for morning practice out on the lake in freezing weather is not learning something about perserverance, commitment, dedication and self-responsibility, then I do not understand where you are coming from. She is not going pro in crew, her focus his her education and on top of that she is getting a secondary training through sports that will likely be invaluable to her in the future. I assume rburns never participated in college athletics and thus should not be speaking about matters about which he has no valid information. Please, please feel free to educate yourself about the merits of athletics as a complement to an academic education (which lord knows for many undergrads is far less useful than the education many student-athletes receive in training for their sport).

8. sarannart6 - October 26, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Don't college presidents have a moral responsibility to do the right thing?

What if boosters or trustees want to start up a club of exotic dancers who happen to be students. Likely it would raise a lot of money -- and cost a lot less than football or basketball. Wouldn't a president's job require taking a stand against this kind of "prostitution"?

How about selling degrees to donors who are willing to write checks, but not do the work required to complete a degree. You don't need a hundred million dollar stadium or TV contract for that.

How about guaranteeing spots in the freshman class to the children of parents who write big checks?

The NCAA's own data shows that fewer than 1/5 of the DIA BCS schools have athletic programs that generate revenues sufficient enough to support non-athletics programs.

University presidents who are prostituting their institutions to their athletic programs should be ashamed. If you are really an "educator" then educate your boosters and board members re. the appropriate, supporting role of athletics in the institution.

9. alleyoxenfree - October 27, 2009 at 12:38 am

Fully half the athletes in my classes were absent today. None are in big-name sports. And they were not away for games. Try as we might to be open-minded, it's a tough sell to most experienced professors that sports, other than intramurals, complement an education. Depends on the students and the coach. But bad behavior in all sports is rampant. When an athlete is too tired to do their work because of a 5 a.m. practice, then what?

College presidents can't stand up because they want to retain the title and the perks. There are plenty of colleges without big-time sports where they could be a president if they were devoted to education.

10. raymond_j_ritchie - October 27, 2009 at 04:16 am

I am very glad that in Australia we have the Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra. Sporty types can run off to AIS for their education. They run round in circles, throw things, swim and of course hit and chase balls. A cattle-dog pup would love it. They do a "Sports Science" course. No comment. Nobody pretends the Institute of Sport is a university and universities shun it.

Australian Pro-Football clubs do their own training and have nothing to do with universities. Just as well because they are always having sex, violence, brawling, drinking, drugs and organised crime scandals.

Even in sport-mad Australia the notorious american experience of university sports has so far been enough for universities to refuse to get involved in pro-sports and sports scholarships. To Alleyoxenfree - have you ever tried to fail a guy in the football team? A colleague of mine did when she was a PhD student. She got threatened by the coach.

Sport faculties hurt higher education. But how can american universities free themselves from Sports Faculties?

11. 11188926 - October 27, 2009 at 06:03 am

The report is not just sad it reflects the politization of boards, offices of presidents and chancellors all of whom have lost their way relative to their responsibilities and mission of their institutions. No wonder many in the non academic community lose respect for these so called leaders. They are not leaders they are parasites feeding off the media frenzy and surplus dollars attached to these "big time sports programs". Who is to blame? Remember Pogo. It is time presidents are willing to lose their jobs over ethical issues and not join the finger pointing crowd who avoid responsibility. To blame "the other" is not a sustainable argument. In many cases Presidents / chancellors have substantial influence on board membership. If the general public who support these programs, boards and Presidents / Chancellors continue to offer support via tax dollars and/or tuition payments and contributions continue to follow current patterns they deserve the end products - unethical institutions producing unethical graduates and programs.

12. jimherb - October 27, 2009 at 06:59 am

Criticism of college sports is equated with Communism in Georgia--yet, is this not a "socialist" program in that govt tax dollars are inevitably drawn toward these programs? I teach at a university where 95% of our students are on financial aid. Shouldn't every possible penny go towards instruction? Every minute our administrators spend on sports is a minute that could be directed toward improving instruction.

13. 11159995 - October 27, 2009 at 10:59 am

As a former non-recruited athlete at an Ivy university in a non-revenue sport, I agree with Mulcahy that sports can be a valuable part of the college experience. But one problem not often observed is the "opportunity cost" of sports today compared with earlier days. In my undergraduate era (early 1960s) we spent half as much time practicing, with only one organized team practice a day, not two. Thus we had much more time to devote to other extracurricular or academic activities. The pursuit of ever faster times (my sport was swimming) seems foolish when only a tiny handful of athletes will ever set national or world records. Sports would be a more normal part of college life if the time devoted to them were more restricted. The value of sports does not increase in direct proportion to the amount of time spent in training for them. --- Sandy Thatcher

14. bekka_alice - October 27, 2009 at 11:28 am

Re: Mulcahy's note - absolutely, sports can teach great values and discipline. But martial arts or volleyball can teach that as well as football without a similar scale in attendant costs, and frankly so can service assignments, which generate benefits to the community rather than eating resources of the institution.

Does anyone think it would be a little weird if we said "We love our hospitals, but we demand that they engage in hosting art shows?" Or "We love our museums, but they have to host the Olympics?" Running sports programs at the level to which they have grown is a serious division in the dedication of resources (time, advertising and support efforts, management and oversight time even if you manage to argue away the original expenditures) from an educational institution. If we demand our physics course come with a top-ranked football helmet, it creates a serious question of mission drift.

15. libbysander - October 27, 2009 at 11:52 am

Hi, everyone. This is Libby Sander. Thanks for posting some really thoughtful comments here. I'd be interested to hear more from those of you who have thoughts on an issue raised in comments #6 and #11: the role of boards in big-time college sports. How do boards/trustees make it easier/harder for presidents to exercise authority over athletics? Please contact me off-line at libby.sander@chronicle.com. And again, thanks for reading.

16. 11134078 - October 27, 2009 at 01:49 pm

No one I know is against intra-mural sports. In them a student can gain all the benefits rightly praised by #7. It is the competition between institutions that is at issue. And this has become so corrupt that it cannot be reformed but only eliminated. By the way, while we think we know that intercollegiate athletics bring in alumni money, we do not know how much alumni money they keep away. Let's get specific: I would give more to my alma mater, Cornell, if every blasted morning I did not see many column inches about its teams in the Ithaca Journal.

17. tiburon - October 27, 2009 at 04:26 pm

How high are ranked the football teams of Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cal Tech, Columbia University, or University of Chicago?. Is there a correlation here?

18. pontanus - October 27, 2009 at 04:31 pm

It really doesn't matter whether presidents at Div IA schools are cowardly. Most such institutions -- an overwhelming majority of those in Div IA -- are simply glorified high schools where students not remotely able to do college-level work go through the empty charade of "being in college." At places like Nebraska and Tennessee and Ohio State, the "real" university is the football franchise. It may have some incidental classroom space attached, but that -- like the faculty and the library -- is window dressing. The administrators at such places are brought in simply to make soothing noises about "excellence" and churn out press releases about how Sargasso State is a "world class institution." At such schools, presidential pusilanimity doesn't matter. The educational level is so low that no young person is being "deprived of a college education."
The tiny minority of sports factory schools with more selective admissions -- Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame, etc. -- are a different problem. Still, their operating of semi-pro franchises is self-punishing. Duke, for instance, overwhelmingly draws "party animal" students who despise genuine education and live to carouse and make fools of themselves. (See the Chronicle stories a few years back about "bench burnings" at Duke.) It's true that the presidents of these schools are constantly forced by trustees and boosters to debase themselves in public -- Nanerl Keohane at Duke a few years ago, for instance -- but, once again, nobody is being deprived of an education. The party animals would party wherever they went to school. In the same way, Notre Dame loses out on very bright Catholic kids who, taking one horrified look at a campus dominated by the "Touchdown Jesus," choose to go to an Ivy college, or a good liberal arts college like Williams or Amherst, instead.
The Ivies are a special case. Ivy presidents have been pusilanimous enough, but since the Ivy League doesn't permit "athletic scholarships," they're spared most of the humiliation of presidents at Div IA schools. It's true that they're forced to dilute the quality of their freshman class with "coaches' set-asides" -- entering freshmen who would otherwise have stood no chance whatever of getting in, and who are light years behind the brightest kids on campus -- and it's true that this percentage has been growing steadily in the age of professionalization. But the Ivies have the luxury of making up for the "athlete bottom quarter" by balancing it with a top quarter of the smartest and most talented kids in the country. Given that cohort, presidential cowardice doesn't have ruinous effects. Still, something is eventually going to have to be done about "set asides" -- around 15% last year, meaning more than one in ten students on every Ivy campus who would never have been there on the basis of intellectual ability. As one critic of big time sports put it, "At Ohio State they give their football recruits cars and gold chains. At Harvard or Princeton, they give them something infinitely more desirable in American society: a place in an Ivy League freshman class."
Finally, there are very good schools at which the presidents have no need to be cowardly, because they have teams made up of real students at the school. The president of NYU, for instance, never has to face a crowd of ravening boosters or domineering trustees, because NYU plays sports at the Div III level of "participatory athletics." The president of Emory, or the University of Chicago, is in the same position. It's these schools that represent the only lasting solution to presidential pusilanimity: if commercialized Div IA football and basketball were abolished tomorrow, every university in the country could attract top-notch administrators, which in turn would do a lot to get American higher education back on track. But until that happens --and it is extremely unlikely to happen in a society whose intellectual level is measured by reality TV and Monday Nite Football -- most presidents will continue to be, as they are now, hired to be the compliant toadies of the local boosters club.

19. tiburon - October 27, 2009 at 04:36 pm

# 18 AMEN!

20. wej1955 - October 28, 2009 at 08:08 am

I have taught at a D-I school and attended a D-I school and a D-III school as an undergrad. I had football players who didn't show and earned F's and some who were actual students and earned A's. So not all stereotypes fit. Likewise, I had challenging coursework at both D-I and D-III schools and played sports at D-III level. It all depends on your major and what kind of student are you? I had poor professors at both levels and excellent ones at both. My dissertation committee at a IA school comprised of faculty who earned PhD's from Arizona, North Carolina, Oregon State, Virginia and UCLA, no Ivies but I would stack them against any faculty. Don't overestimate Ivies and underestimate so called football factories for education.

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