Like many enthusiasts of college sports, I monitored closely the daily drama of the near implosion of the athletic conference alignments that recently unfolded over a period of several weeks involving several major football conferences, with primary focus on the Big 12 and its potential dismantling. I won’t belabor all the various cross-currents; I will simply say that I am generally pleased with the outcome for the time being, although I believe that it is merely a transition to another round of contention in just a few years.
Obscured by the headlines that followed these high profile machinations was the announcement of the third report of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, entitled Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values, and the Future of College Sports. This report was not as provocative as the first two, but it was certainly timely, dealing as it did with the impact of the enormous and rapidly increasing funding of college sports that seemingly overwhelms all other considerations in the strategies of these programs and the deliberations on conference affiliations. In fact, in the release of the report, the Commission noted that recent events give “new urgency to the finding of a survey in which a majority of university presidents agreed that current spending trends cannot be sustained”.
The recommendations offer three principles for reform: (1) require that financial reports be public and transparent; (2) reward institutions that make academic values a priority; and (3) treat athletes as students first and foremost–not as professionals. The Commission further recommends that the financial reports filed by each institution with the NCAA be made public and include an additional measure comparing spending in athletics and academics, with athletic revenue distribution more closely tied to academic values and standards.
I am on record in this publication in agreement with almost every conclusion and recommendation of the first two Knight Commission reports (see The Student-Athlete Myth, August 2001 and A Profile in Academic Courage, November 2003) and I certainly have no problem with the current recommendations, although some of them seem to require significant transformation of human nature. But here is the immediate problem: Of 119 colleges with NCAA Division 1-A football programs, only 19 were profitable in 2009 and only six have been profitable for five consecutive years, so the “arms race” in college athletics is producing a clear demarcation between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and the gap is becoming more pronounced with every passing year.
In the interest of full disclosure, my alma mater, The University of Texas, is one of the six and leads the nation in annual gross athletic revenues at $138 million, a fact that gives me no great cause for celebration, but I will add this–although I am no fan of the current system, until we fix it, UT has no intention of unilateral disarmament. And I should also add that UT athletics is one of the very few programs that not only doesn’t require any subsidy from its parent, but rather distributes significant funding to the academic side of the institution on an annual basis. Common sense dictates that sustainable coexistence by UT and others among the “haves” in the same conference with schools on the other end of the financial spectrum is problematic at best.
So what will be the outcome? I certainly don’t know and I’m not sure anyone can predict. But I fear that if the leadership of the schools at the upper end of financial success do not take aggressive action soon, there is a risk of government intervention on issues such as tax exemption, compensation of student-athletes, and anti-trust considerations, not to mention intervention in matters of conference membership, none of which will be productive for college athletics or academics.