Many of my friends are college and university presidents, past and present, and our conversations almost always delve into the state of athletics. These individuals are, without question, enlightened men and women who admit that the so-called arms race is not subsiding, not by a long shot.
In 2008, there is a growing and insatiable appetite for college athletics among students, alumni, trustees, and the general public. Fiscal restraint is rare. College athletics has become a big, big business, offering real competition to major professional spots: football, basketball, baseball, and NASCAR.
College football coaches often make ten times as much as well-established professors. It would seem that some schools are focused more on "parties and spectacle" than on teaching and learning.
The average pay for major college football coaches surpasses $1 million a year, and the same is true for front-line college basketball coaches. Assistant coaches in both men's sports are beneficiates of spiraling salaries, too.
With regard to faculty salaries, only some fields like business, engineering, and computer science pay in the range of $100,000 to $120,000 a year. Instructors, who often carry the heaviest teaching loads for undergraduate classes, receive less than $53,000.
Some representatives from the National Collegiate Athletic Association actually defend, with a straight face, the high pay of football and men's basketball coaches, explaining that coaches, unlike the faculty, do not have tenure.
The head football coaches from Alabama, Iowa, Florida, and Oklahoma receive more than $3 million a year and others are about to catch them.
Too few citizens realize that only a few major athletic programs actually make money, and the rest struggle to break even. Even with television income, growing ticket sales and prices, costly marketing, and generous contributions from supporters, big-time athletics is a high-risk business. At last count, among the 119 schools with top Division 1 football teams, only 15 had athletic departments that made a profit. The others continue to envision a profit.
Too many athletic departments rely on some form of university subsidy, a sore point with faculty and politicians, and such subsidies are often well disguised A growing number of elected officials in Washington believe that athletic departments have more influence than they should and need to be reined in.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee, believing athletic programs are in many instances undercutting institutional missions, are likely to call for hearings during the 2009 session. Any intrusion from Congress is certain to be discouraged by college presidents and their trustees who understand the depth of feelings of legions of people. Any real action seems unlikely at this time.
What sobers many of my presidential friends is the possibility of a significant drop in the popularity of college sports. And some believe that will happen because athletic events are overexposed now that they are on so many network and cable outlets.
Miles Brand, the NCAA president who in recent times has led the successful charge for needed reform in academic standards for athletes, has said, "Institutions hold mortgages on burgeoning facility expansion that represents on average 20 percent of intercollegiate athletics spending."
According to several prominent university heads, Brand will be pushed by his membership to devote even more attention to the bottom line or what the budget numbers portend. Clearly, it would a gut-wrenching exercise for many on and off the campus, but the clock is ticking.
One can assume mounting and loud criticism from certain students who will be paying increased tuition and fees. Growth in student costs has been disproportionate in recent years and there is no letup in sight.
Athletic programs are complex; they defy simplistic remedies. In truth, they are a combination of academics, societal values, business and sports, and they always stir heated emotions from many sides, from zealot fans to cerebral professors.
- Gene A. Budig is the former president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and the University of Kansas and past president of Major League Baseball's American League. He is a distinguished professor at the College Board in New York and author of Grasping the Ring.