Gene A. Budig is a distinguished professor at the College Board in New York and a former college president at Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and Kansas University. He also served as president of the American League from 1994 to 2000.
University presidents with large athletic programs saw the beast coming.
Seemingly, there was no easy way to slow it, and the fears have been greatly magnified over the years, especially with the advent of the dreaded “arms race.”
What activist college presidents hoped for 25 years ago was some form of financial arrangement with professional football and basketball — the collegiate athletic experience was serving as the training ground for the pros, and the presidents wanted to retain balance, control, and academic integrity.
Even then few college football and basketball teams actually made money. Today fewer than 15 claim to be in the black while the others continue to spend, hoping that financial success is just around the corner.
Furthermore, college athletics has become an enormous factor in national sports entertainment, with rich cable and network deals, such as major conference television arrangements.
Given the fact that all major state and private colleges and universities will begin the 2009-2010 school year with seriously reduced budgets, perhaps it is time to explore, in a serious way, a financial arrangement with the NFL and NBA.
And beware of the lawyers from the leagues who will explain how that cannot be done, citing numerous interpretations of the law. Most of these specialty sports attorneys rarely lose when big dollars are at stake for their wealthy clients.
The truth of the matter is:
• The National Football League just drafted 256 outstanding players from our colleges and universities.
• The National Basketball Association will soon claim another 60 or more.
• Major League Baseball will select at least 50 to 60 players.
The drafts have become popular national events for cable TV, enhancing value for the players, teams, and the networks through advertising and attractive program time.
The point is:
All of these promising athletes received their training at their colleges and universities, without cost to the professional teams who are clear beneficiaries.
According to Alan Barra, who recently wrote a splendid piece for The Wall Street Journal on the timely subject, one of the major reasons for the professional leagues’ financial success, especially in football and basketball, is that they do not pay for the costs of training. MLB is somewhat different in that its teams do provide player development through an expensive system of minor leagues.
Despite high-profile attention to reform in college athletics, and there has been considerable progress on the academic side, the system remains pretty much the same. It is broken and most college presidents and chancellors know it.
It has become big-time entertainment for students, faculty, staff, alumni, major contributors, politicians and the general public. Many even associate it with state pride. In some parts of the country, college athletic programs are more popular than their professional counterparts. The horse has been out of the barn for a long, long time.
But given the staggering financial crises facing our colleges and universities brought on by depression, it might be the ideal time to open the conversation with the professional leagues for support for higher education. The pros certainly have the money, certainly enough to share.
A respected colleague and sports economist, Andrew Zimbalist, said in 1999 that colleges would be justified in charging pro football and basketball as much as $130 million annually — probably $170 to $180 million in today’s dollars. Others put the figure closer to $190 million.
Surely, the NFL, NBA, and MLB could afford to pay the educational costs of every athlete they draft. Such a move would be one stimulus package that would receive universal taxpayer support.