In recent years, debate has surrounded college athletic departments. Legal challenges have questioned why students aren’t getting more financial reward and a share of the revenues. Faculty and staff question the value and amount of money spent in support of athletics in an environment of scarce resources. Astronomical coaches salaries, massive facilities, and the churn of conference realignment make even the biggest fan question the future of intercollegiate athletics. In spite of the media exposure and interest, I am consistently surprised at how little we know about basic questions related to athletics. In today’s post, I want to address one of the most basic and misunderstood questions: Do college athletic departments make a profit?
One of my biggest disappointments in sports is never getting to see Dean Smith coach in person at North Carolina. Just two months after I arrived in Chapel Hill as an undergraduate in the fall of 1997, Coach Smith announced his retirement. It is hard for me to believe he hasn’t been on the sideline for nearly 18 years. While I was never able to witness Smith’s greatness staging a comeback thanks to those hoarded timeouts or raising four fingers, I feel fortunate to have grown up in Dean Smith’s Chapel Hill. Dean Smith’s legacy illustrates everything right about intercollegiate athletics.
Dean Smith passed away at the age of 83 over the weekend. Coach Smith’s tenure in Chapel Hill spanned parts of four decades. When you think about everything that occurred from the 1960s to the 1990s, it is surprising that Smith was able to adapt to the changes in students, universities, sport, and society.
As I discussed a few months ago, I’m currently conducting a study with my research assistant on the causes of why college presidents are fired or forced to resign. There was tremendous press around this issue particularly with Holden Thorp leaving UNC following the academic and athletic crisis there. This past weekend, Barry Jacobs, a sports columnist for the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer wrote a thoughtful column that I want to repost and share here. Jacobs references our study about the causes for presidential involuntary turnover. I thought his take and the comparison between Holden Thorp and Paul Hardin was particularly salient. The athletics pressures on college presidents aren’t new and remain a significant problem for many universities.
Athletics a Pressure Point for University Leaders
By Barry Jacobs
There’s no surefire way to prepare, no tutorial or textbook laying out the pitfalls and pressure points. University presidents and chancellors, the NCAA’s putative leaders, reportedly don’t even like to discuss athletics among themselves. Most will survive averting their gaze – “involuntary transitions” due to athletics scandal are surprisingly uncommon, according to a yet-to-be-published working paper on turnover among university presidents.
“The struggles with athletics may be the most prominent, but I don’t know that it’s the most threatening to a presidency, by and large,” says Michael Harris, the Southern Methodist University professor who co-authored the study. Firings and resignations, particularly at public universities, are more likely due to “loss of board confidence” and “financial improprieties.”
I had the privilege this week to speak with the Kathleen Dunn Show on Wisconsin Public Radio about athletics spending and the future of higher education. Our discussion covered a wide range of issues related to intercollegiate athletics as well as higher education more generally. The callers added great perspective and I enjoyed the opportunity. If you’re interested in these issues, I recommend you listen to the show or download the podcast version. In today’s post, I want to mention a couple of points that were raised in our discussion that are worthy of highlighting. Athletics presents a challenge to institutional leaders and all of those worried about the future of higher education.
This week, UAB became the first NCAA FBS (formerly Division IA) university to drop its football program. Despite becoming bowl eligible for the first time in ten years this season, the university administration decided that football was no longer affordable. In a news release, UAB President Ray Watts said that “football is simply not sustainable.” Predictably, the national media picked up on this theme and a series of stories highlighted the escalating costs associated with big time college athletics. These articles also questioned the viability of football for schools like UAB. Although a compelling storyline, I argue that there is more than meets the eye in the case of UAB. Clearly, the escalating expenses of college sports and football in particular are problematic. As a result, the move to drop football is likely the right one for UAB, but I believe this right decision was made for the wrong reasons.