But if the benefits of big-time football don’t all show up in a strict model of revenues and expenses, neither do the potential costs.
To Roush, the Centre College president, FBS football is like a cancer cell implanted inside an institution _ innocuous at first but growing into something destructive. Schools struggle to win initially and throw money at the team, alienating faculty whose own salaries are frozen. Gradually, the university loses control of the athletic program, and student-athletes suffer.
“Choosing to go to FBS is simply to invite big money in over time,” Roush said. “When you allow that kind of distortion to take shape, it does bad things. It can dampen morale in other parts of the organization. It can create an elite class of students and employees.”
At first, schools say “‘Oh, we’re going to be careful about that,’” Roush said, and they may be. “The problem is 10 years from now when they’re paying their football coach $1.5 million in today’s dollars” and values have been compromised.
Even supposed success stories are cautionary tales, like Central Florida. After moving up to FBS in 1996, the Knights have cracked the AP Top 25 and reached four bowl games, coinciding with a general rise in the university’s profile.
But they likely won’t reach a bowl game this year. They are banned, following a 2011 investigation in which the NCAA found evidence the football and basketball programs were involved with runners for sports agents and making cash payments to recruits (UCF is appealing the postseason ban).
A recent survey by the online publication Inside Higher Ed laid bare the “It can’t happen here” denials of college presidents. Only a quarter agreed “the presidents of big-time athletic programs are in control of their programs.” But nearly two-thirds of Division I presidents said such scandals couldn’t possibly happen at their institutions.
They do happen, and even _ perhaps especially _ at academically ambitious institutions, where they can devour an entire presidency. Think of Donna Shalala, fending off the latest recruiting scandals at Miami, or Holden Thorp, trying to navigate the University of North Carolina through unprecedented budget cuts while in perpetual crisis mode over an academic scandal in the football program that’s hurt UNC’s good reputation.
“What do you think (new president) Rod Erickson is spending his time on at Penn State, any of those guys?” said John Burness, a former head of public affairs at several major universities, including Duke, where he saw a good year of work spent almost entirely dealing with the lacrosse case there.
“When you get involved in the negatives, the scandals, it’s such an enormous sinkhole of the time of the institutional leadership they almost can’t deal with anything else,” he said. “When schools start out no one is assuming there will be a problem. But there’s so much money involved in this, there are inevitably going to be problems.”
Moulton, the South Alabama president, said the school’s eyes are open to the financial risks (for now it enjoys a rent-free municipal stadium, but concedes it may have to build one down the road). He says South Alabama has “very intense programs” to monitor the academic side of the football program. As for reputational risks, he thinks playing in the Sun Belt Conference will help his school stay the course.
Still, he acknowledges, scandals “can happen to us, too.” When they do, “no matter how careful you are and what you do, I think the main thing you have to do is show if something like that does occur, that you had all the right practices in place to try to prevent that.”
Duderstadt _ the former Michigan president _ would argue the better lesson to take from Penn State is an honest reckoning of just how much is at stake.
“If (the Penn State scandal) had occurred in almost any other part of that institution, it would have been a big story” but it would not have resulted in the same kind of massive blow to the university, Duderstadt said.
“Do you really want to put not only your institutions but yourself at risk for something that you’ll have so little control over, that you really will not understand?” he asked. “Once you put it in place, it’s going to run on its own.”