January 02, 2004

Big Money for Big Sports: "Excess in lieu of accountability"?

For L.S.U. Coach Nick Saban, the outcome of the championship game in the Sugar Bowl carries a personal stake as well.
If the Tigers win and claim the Bowl Championship Series title, Saban will be paid one dollar more than the highest-paid college coach in the nation, according to an incentive clause in his contract. It means his annual compensation will exceed by that dollar the more than $2.2 million package paid to the coach who will stand across the field from him at the Superdome: Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.

-- Joe Drape, "Coaches Receive Both Big Salaries and Big Questions"

The above-linked NYTimes article reports that "at least 23 college football coaches now earn $1 million" annually, which figure "sometimes does not even include the abundance of performance incentives for everything from rankings and bowl games to players' academic performances." Defenders of such salaries cite the seemingly inevitable logic of "the market," while critics who worry about "excess in lieu of accountability" invoke such possibly outmoded notions as "academic integrity" and "the college mission."

I have no hesitation in stating that a $2.2 million package for anyone employed by any college in any capacity whatsover is a crazy state of affairs.

There's an interesting comment by Southern California's football coach Pete Carroll, who earns $1.5 million per annum:

'It's all about supply and demand,' Carroll said Wednesday at a news conference in Pasadena, Calif., where his Trojans will play Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Thursday.' 'I don't think it's hard to justify that, when you take a look at the stadiums and the money that is generated by the programs and all that.

'But in another sense, in a more pure sense, it is kind of unusual that this would happen in a university setting, that there would be something that would be that far out of line. I think that's clear and it is somewhat uncomfortable at times for me to think about that because we are just coaching football. And other people are teaching some great stuff that is going to make somebody a doctor someday or a lawyer someday. And we're just coaching football.'

As I noted in this post, I don't think this issue is simply a matter of supply and demand. Yes, of course it is possible to create and then meet a demand for televised "big sports" at the college level. But the questions raised by critics of the new collegiate entertainment industry turn on whether or not it is desirable to create and then meet a demand for televised "big sports" at the college level.

Skip Bertman, L.S.U.'s athletic director and former baseball coach, dismisses the concerns of "'professors — guys with Ph.D.'s and 17-page résumés," who "'do not realize that no tax dollars are being spent.'" Well. As I've said before, I'm sceptical of the notion that athletics are self-supporting, and even profit-making. So I was interested to read that William C. Friday, chairman of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics,

points to the hidden costs a university faces in fielding a major athletics program, like facilities and upkeep. Of the 117 Division I-A programs, 40 percent reported an operating profit in 2001, according to an N.C.A.A. report released this fall that examined spending on college athletics. But without state and school subsidies, only 6 percent of athletic departments made money, according to the report.

But leaving aside budgets and operating costs and the like, what about the students? I'm troubled by the various "incentives" which award big bucks to coaches based on the performance of college students. Well, of course the money couldn't go to the students because then they would no longer be ranked as amateurs. Still, the fact that student's aren't paid big-league salaries strikes me as a pretty decisive rejoinder to Mr. Skip Bertman. As a matter of fact, we're not talking about a free market that operates on the principles of supply and demand. It's a tightly regulated system that is still quite obviously (in the case of the athletes) governed by a variety of non-market goals and expectations (eg, students don't play for money). And rightly so, I think. But then, if the students are indeed playing as amateurs in non-professional leagues, then why in the name of all that is sensible should their coaches be paid like big-league operators?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 2, 2004 07:29 PM

Sigh. I'm an LSU alum, from way back, and I find this entire thing disheartening. Even if Skip Bertman were being completely honest, and Saban's salary (and all of the other costs of the football and other athletic programs) were entirely paid for via the earnings of those programs, there's one crucial bit of absurdity that he isn't accounting for: If these programs are such big money-makers, couldn't they possibly be used to support the actual *educational* mission of the university?

Instead, Nick Saban may make $2,200,001 next year, but the faculty in the English department will still have to pay for their own photocopies.

Makes sense to me.

Posted by: KF at January 2, 2004 08:13 PM

I seem to remember reading an article in the NYT sometime last year about college football that brought in the question of whether the programs actually made money. IIRC, that question is often obscured because some services provided to the athletics programs are counted in general college budgets (medicial support comes to mind).

If I weren't recovering from a new hard drive at my host, I'd include the link, and when my blog's search is working again, I'll come back with it. It was an excellent read.

Posted by: Elaine at January 2, 2004 10:24 PM

To be fair, why should athletic programs share any money with anyone when they are the ones pulling in the funds?** Afterall, if the history school pulls in a million, no one will even think of asking them to share the money. Why should they care even if the english department has no electricity? All programs in universities do this.

Education != academia. If there are people who are inspired by sports or look up to these athletes as role models than more power to them. For all the bad press we get about college athletes behaving badly, remember that the are many many more who are not. Some people have no one else to look up to besides athletes. If having a great sports team spurs them on to attend some particuar college or to straighten out their lives, what so bad about that?

** My understanding is that universities do get a cut of the money from licensing the university name or seal on caps, shirts, etc. So in some way these programs do support other academic activities.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 2, 2004 11:36 PM

Dear Passing Through: If the History or English Department made a million you bet your ass the university would take part of it as overhead. Why should the sports programs be any different.

By the way, I'd be happy, as a professor, to sign a contract with that "plus one dollar" incentive based on the evaluations of my students, colleagues & even the administration. I could make a buck more than Stanley Fish, or whoever the current stgar is. And I'd be worth every penny.

Posted by: chujoe at January 3, 2004 08:44 AM

Well, having gone to a school that was part of the 4% to 9% that actually makes a net from football, and that uses the revenue to fund other programs (as well as having been on the student board of directors for Cal State Los Angeles, where football was killed by the group before us and we made the decision to leave it with a stake through its heart), football is a messy matter (compared, for example, to basketball).

You can take the approach that Midwester State University (Wichita Falls, Texas) took -- a football program improved enrollment, etc., winning did not make a difference -- so it has a program that loses all the time and gets *no* money out of the school. Perpetual frustration for the program, but great for the academic side of the house.

Or there is UTEP (University of Texas, El Paso). A freerider, so to speak. Again, put no money in the program (comparatively speaking), take its part of the conference bowl game proceeds every year, made a nice profit every year until the bowl game teams left the WAC and UTEP behind.

Finally, there are the few schools that bring in real revenue from the programs (fewer than you would think, once you deduct out alumni donations that would have gone to the school anyway). And harder than you would think too, to stay in that number.

There are several problems.

First, very few programs do the accounting right, so about half of them claim to make a profit.

Second, very few of the critics do the accounting right (i.e. calculate the impact on placement of students and on applicant pool that a sports program creates for the school in question), so that schools routinely evaluate those numbers based on faulty logic or bad math.

Third, there is a strong emotional commitment to sports by many people (kind of like Boy Scouts -- who is in the Boy Scouts for paramilitary training any more? Show me an eagle scout you would really trust in a serious camping situation ...). Many of the decisions are not rational.

Finally, how much does a sports program lose compared to an English department? That is, how many programs on a college compus (other than the law school) generate any significant net profit so that the students could participate and attend without paying any tuition at all?

Interesting issues.

Especially when you start looking at what star academics are paid at flagship institutions. Some are paid amazing amounts for the actual amount of work done.

For example, if Chujoe can gain the national prominence of Stanley Fish, then he can probably market himself for a dollar more.

Anyway, just thought I'd add some thoughts there.

Posted by: Steve at January 3, 2004 12:14 PM

I tend toward the opinion that schools should let it all hang out and just franchise semi-pro teams and hire players, thus becoming minor-league operations. Players could have the status of low-level research assistants or instrumental-music instructors, sort of faculty, sort of not, and the top 18 year olds would be bid for.

In short, make them adjuncts!

I can see problems if, for example, the Indiana State franchise tries to move to someplace will support them better, but pro sports has survived such trauma.

Sports provide a kind of buffer for universities, giving them credibility with know-nothings who just plain don't like education and scholarship. "We don't just piss around with Shakespeare and Chaucer and boring, pagan shit like that. We do rough-tough macho stuff too. We're OK, really."

I think that the most cynical interpretation is the best one here. "Passing through"'s rationalizations seem pretty lame to me.

Posted by: zizka at January 3, 2004 01:10 PM

Personally, I have always found it absurd to have the big (and some smaller) colleges serve as minor leagues for professional football and basketball. I know I am grossly unrealistic, given that amount of money involved, but I would much rather the NFL and NBA have their own separate minor league systems, and end this whole farce we currently have.

Posted by: DM at January 3, 2004 02:33 PM

For a variety of reasons, football and basketball are very different.

The same is true of the various divisions. Many football programs outside of Division 1 are profitable or break even, and do not hurt the academic mission of the University any more than soccer or rugby or chess. (disclaimer, I was on a chess team that traveled, even made a little money by accident).

Most players (for footballand other sports) are not on scholarship and get less support than adjuncts -- they don't even have significant health plans. Adjunct status would be a step up for many.

Anyway, interesting stuff.

Posted by: Steve at January 3, 2004 03:06 PM

Why do football coaches get big salaries?

Because they can. They're wanted. They know that, and university admins know that. American culture values football. It's the modern day circus. This makes football coaches big ticket cultural commodities in a way that the Stanley Fishes of the world can only dream. Even their steroid popping charges don't get so much attention. Who remembers the tackles or the guards? Maybe people will pay attention to a flashy quaterback or quibble about which player is better, but they actually listen to football coaches. They have faith in them. Football coaches may be criticised, but people do it on their terms. That is, people really engage with their work. Compared to this, your average humanities prof is less than a fart in a hurricane.

Is it necessary? As much as bread and circuses were to the Romans.

Posted by: che at January 3, 2004 03:55 PM

"I think that the most cynical interpretation is the best one here."


Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 3, 2004 05:59 PM

Re comment 5: GO MINERS! Especially in two years when NMSU joins the WAC (I'll be able to visit my parents, hit my favorite coffee shop, and enjoy MY rivalry, all in one weekend).

Seriously though, Passing_through is right about the loyalty and accounting issues. Exactly how would UTEP have built the new kinesiology building if Larry Durham had not paid fully half of the six million out of pocket? Alumni will give money to support programs, or work to get grant money for their alma mater, but only if there is some sort of emotional attachment. Remove the source of that attachment, whether a music or engineering department or a sports program, and there is no proof I've heard of that the alumni will continue to give at the same rate. We simply don't know what it would take to get the same amount of donations without these programs in place.

There are most definitely more logical ways to approach college sports, but the people in charge of how the money gets spent will ignore you if you complain that sports divert resources from academic work. We will simply have to figure out a way to do both tolerably well. That's life. Deal with it. (And no, swiping revenue from sports to support other programs is not an option -- that money is already spent on other things. Again, deal with it.)

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 3, 2004 07:47 PM

I did an In Focus on this at B&W last spring -

There are a lot of interesting links there.

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at January 4, 2004 09:01 PM

'Deal with it' seems to me like a somewhat odd response to discussions of a perceived problem. It's like 'Get a life' or 'Why ask why.' It amounts to saying it's pointless to think about reforming or changing something - a discussion short-circuit. What's the point? Why do people have to 'deal with' arrangements they think are bad and stupid?

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at January 4, 2004 09:05 PM

Thanks for the links.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 4, 2004 10:25 PM

Sorry, it was a bit brusk, wasn't it? Sometimes it seems that this topic turns into "Why are we wasting all this money on football/basketball?", and that annoys the heck out of me. I think that this particular version is a waste of time since most people do not consider money spent on college sports to be money wasted. I was simply trying to say that we will have to figure out a better way for universities to simultaneously do sports, academics, and any other activities deemed appropriate by those who have the power to make appropriations. The nature of the beast is such that you have to satisfy your funding sources to keep getting the funding. In some cases this will mean eliminating a sport, in other cases it may mean supporting one sport over other possibilities, in other cases it may mean living with the status quo, and so on. I apologize if I offended.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 5, 2004 04:57 AM

IA, welcome.

No offense, AM. Disagreement, rather. I still think even 'waste of time' is not really a useful category for discussions of this kind. Surely 'most people' think a lot of things that other people simply don't want to endorse no matter how many people think them. It's not automatically a waste of time to disagree with majority opinion, surely...

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at January 5, 2004 11:20 AM