Enjoying college sports at the highest level, at least for me, includes slight pangs of guilt and a tug at my conscience.
I try not to think about it too much, especially in the midst of thrillers like the University of Texas’ 50-47 double-overtime victory Saturday against Notre Dame, or unforeseen upsets like No. 3 Oklahoma going down against wanna-be Big 12 member Houston.
When the focus remains fixed on the ball and players between the white lines (or on the hardwood), it’s easy to view the action as mere fun and games, enjoyed by generation after generation of participants and spectators of all ages.
There are no conflicting emotions at the professional level. We understand that the NFL and NBA represent “big business,” whose sole reason for existence is to realize a profit. Pro leagues make games and Ford makes cars with the same intention — to make money as a result.
But the picture gets cloudy when the gaze shifts to campuses. I know the stated reasons for intercollegiate sports; they’re great for extracurricular activities, school spirit, marketing opportunities and alumni pride.
However, it’s impossible to ignore the staggering amounts of money involved — here it goes and where it comes from, who gets paid and who doesn’t — without raising nagging concerns about priorities and propriety.
According to a report by “Outside the Lines,” athletic departments in the Power Five conferences raked in a record $6 billion last year, nearly $4 billion more than all other schools combined. In an effort to keep up, the smaller, “Group of Five” conferences are spending hundreds of millions of dollars from student fees, university subsidies and state or local governments.
Subsidized resources make up just 5 percent of athletic budgets in the Power Five. Conversely, Group of Five schools rely on outside funds for half of their athletic budgets.
The report cited the University of Connecticut as an example. The school’s athletic budget includes $28 million from student fees and university subsidies, an amount that has more than doubled since 2008. Houston spent $26 million to support athletics, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the department’s budget.
Students can be clueless regarding the level of support provided by their fees. “They are aghast,” Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, told ESPN. “‘My God, I only went to two football games when I was in college. They cost me $500 apiece.’”
Power Five departments siphon just a fraction of those general funds, but the exorbitant expenditures at the top level are troubling: private jets, five-star hotels, lavish team facilities, biometric gadgets for the athletes and a surfeit of support staff and coaches who earn six-figure salaries, especially in the face of deficits, shrinking state budgets and rising tuition.
“It’s violating the spirit of what college athletics are supposed to be, and financially it’s very destructive,” noted economist and sports-business expert Andrew Zimbalist told ESPN. “You can take $20-to-$30 million and give scholarships to poor minority kids who show academic promise in the inner city. That would show a greater impact on society and diversity and academic quality of the student body.
“I don’t think anybody would object to the athletic enterprise if they had a deficit similar to the deficit in the theater department or the classics department.”
Imagine that. College sports treated on the same level as the performing arts, with most of the school’s emphasis on academics.
Granted, TV networks won’t pay millions to televise the drama department’s rendition of “Hamlet.” And 80,000 fans won’t flock to hear the music department’s Christmas concert.
So revenue-producing sports are different in scope, by nature. I get that.
But the cavernous gulf between haves and have-nots, and the prolific spending by the biggest operations, creates a foul odor, a subtle stench that’s unshakable once you take a deep whiff. Sports’ level of importance seems outsized, not to mention the arrangement between management and labor, which seems unfair.
Observers are trying to stem the tide of misplaced priorities. The University of Georgia’s Board of Regents recently enacted a rule that limits the athletic departments’ cut from student fees and tuition, following the steps of the Virginia Legislature, which passed a similar measure last year.
None of these disturbing facts affect my enjoyment once kickoff or tipoff takes place. Then, it’s simply marveling at the amazing feats of phenomenal athletes. I don’t care how much the schools spend, how much the students pay or how much sports take away from other departments.
But every now and then, when I stop to think or see something like the “Outside the Lines” report, I get a reminder:
Major college sports are a guilty pleasure and no one involved is innocent.