Posted in Rants on January 6th, 2010 by Ed

Regular readers know that, among other things, I could be described as a sports fan. Many of you probably find that annoying and consider sports to be low brow or flat-out stupid. But I feel the need to preface today's post with a reminder that I like watching football on TV, attending a baseball game, or playing a little basketball as much as anyone. Maybe moreso. I will talk endlessly about historical baseball statistics or the logic of zone blitzing at the slightest provocation. I've been to the World Series and the Super Bowl at considerable cost. I decidedly am not That Guy Who Hates Sports.


Illinois recently became the latest state with a University system in crisis. On January 5th the interim President of the UI system released a dire assessment of their financial status and announced the kind of draconian cuts becoming common in public universities. His strongly worded statement was no doubt intended to goad the state legislature into action, but it is jarring to see things like this:

"The state’s credit rating has been recently downgraded and among the 50 states only California is worse."

"The consequences for our University and others in this state are unprecedented and worsening. In our case, the University of Illinois has received only 7% of this years state appropriation since the first of July. The shortfall is more than $400 million and mounting. At some point we will be unable to meet payroll and complete the academic year unless there are significant payments from the state as promised."

"In anticipation of next years challenges, academic and administrative support units should consider issuing notifications of non-reappointment for selected individuals in employee classes whose terms and conditions of employment require advance notice of termination."

Thus Illinois joins California, Georgia, Wisconsin, and many other large public university systems in instituting furloughs (which is a nicer way of saying "paycut"), hiring freezes, and tuition hikes to cover substantial budget shortfalls. I understand clearly that state legislatures are cutting funding for higher education because they're broke. They're cutting everywhere they are legally able to make cuts. Fine.

Here is my question: why do broke Universities still have athletic departments? Simply put, programs unessential to the core mission of the university should be eliminated or cut to the bone before a single penny is taken out of academics and research.

The vast majority of athletic programs lose money. And by "the vast majority" I mean almost every single one. The most recent NCAA summary report states that 103 of 119 Division I athletic programs lost money, an average of $8 million per program. And not a single Division I-AA program made a profit. All 118 lost money, many losing over $10 million. Keep in mind that I-AA schools are traditionally small, regional public schools that are poorly funded to begin with.

One of two things needs to happen. First, athletic departments can be subject to the same draconian logic applied elsewhere on campus and forced to make cuts until they break even. This will undoubtedly upset the balance of male and female athletic scholarships mandated in Title IX, as football teams will be far more likely to make money than a track or diving team. If that bothers anyone, here's the second option: do away with all of it. The number of programs that can make money on their own is much smaller than you'd think; just because the football team draws 50,000 fans per game doesn't mean they're not losing money. So off with all of their heads. None of it is essential to a university's mission. The highest paid state employee in any state is inevitably a coach at one of the public universities. The Governor makes $200,000 and Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer or "Coach K" are signed for 5 years, $25 million. If Illinois is so broke that it is legitimately worried about finishing the academic year, why is it paying a few million to its high profile football and basketball coaches?

I like to say that each constituent group of a university is motivated by a single concern. For students, it's drinking. For faculty, it's parking. And for the alumni, it's football. The pressure to maintain athletic programs (and pump money into them until they are good) comes overwhelmingly from alumni, overgrown fratboys who made some oil money and like having their ass kissed when they return to campus. Fine. Make the alumni cough up the money to run the programs at break even or abolish it all. While we're at it, why do the pro sports leagues, from the NFL to the WNBA, get to make billions while using the NCAA as a free developmental minor league? How about this: every time a pro league drafts a college player, the team or league is required to donate $100,000 to the general fund of his or her university along with one full athletic scholarship in that sport.

If drastic times call for drastic measures, why is the least important part of a university exempt from making Tough Choices? The last time I checked, the University of Illinois campuses have basketball teams. Football teams. Women's speed skating teams. All of it costs money and none of it is necessary. If professors are taking 10% paycuts and non-academic staff – administrators, people who clean your kid's dorm, and so on – are being fired, there is no justification for athletic department expenses beyond on-campus recreational/intramural sports. Enough with the bullshit about how "Athletic budgets are separate! They don't take money away from academics!" That sleight-of-hand bookkeeping insults the intelligence of everyone who sees it. Universities have a finite amount of money available and they divert large portions of it to sports. It is a zero-sum game. Tuition is going up, salaries are going down, people are getting fired, and classes are going to get a hell of a lot larger. Athletics, as enjoyable as they may be, are a luxury that we simply cannot afford if the apocalyptic predictions of our policymakers are accurate.