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COMMENTARY
Palaima: Universities' spending on sports undermines their mission: education

Thomas G. Palaima, REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR
Austin American-Statesman Monday, April 18, 2011

Since 2008, I have represented the University of Texas on the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA), the only faculty organization in the country monitoring National Collegiate Athletic Association programs within institutions of higher learning.

The Office of the President at UT has supported my involvement. It's a sign of academic freedom, since President William Powers Jr. knows--to adapt what his predecessor Larry Faulkner said about my colleague Bob Jensen just after 9/11--that I think he is an "undiluted fountain of foolishness" on many policy and budgetary issues relating to big-time athletics and that his decisions regarding NCAA sports have hurt the teaching and research components of our university.

What will surprise most readers, especially ardent Longhorns boosters, is that my views are not radical.

At the annual COIA meeting three months ago, President Graham Spanier of Penn State, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, a panel of Big Ten athletics directors, NCAA President Mark Emmert and Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, all stressed the need for fiscal reform of NCAA programs. All agreed that faculty members must assert their values and play a major role in controlling excesses. But few acknowledged that at most colleges and universities, including UT, faculty members have little authority and no independent voice.

Presidents, NCAA leaders and concerned athletic directors also called for an end to academic abuses of student athletes. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke out angrily during the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament put it: "Colleges and universities need to stop trotting out tired excuses for basketball teams with poor academic records and indefensible disparities in the graduation rates of white and black players. And it is time that the NCAA revenue distribution plan stopped handsomely rewarding success on the court with multimillion-dollar payouts to schools that fail to meet minimum academic standards."

The Knight Commission surveyed big school presidents, and 95 out of 124 replied. They said that sports spending was out of control, but they could do nothing to rein it in.

More than 110 of 124 BCS NCAA programs have expenses that are greater than revenues. The average debt they pay using academic funds is about $10 million per year. Still, no president has cut the numbers of coaches, as a panel of Big Ten athletic directors has proposed, or capped coaches' salaries. They all practice "voodoo economics" - they try to pay the debt by increasing revenues, but not controlling costs.

Leading the bandwagon is UT. The president and regents approved a $2 million raise for the head football coach and a nearly half-million-dollar raise for an assistant coach. That bought us our first losing season in 15 years. They then authorized paying over $3.5 million for a pack of new assistant coaches. And they have given the athletics director a $1 million after-tax annuity. The faculty advisory committee on budgets and faculty council were never consulted.

Likewise, Powers spent goodness knows how much time bringing us the ESPN.com-backed Longhorn Network. The Center for the Study of Sports and Media anticipates the revenues and production needs of the Longhorn Network will generate hundreds of assistantships and internships and affiliated professors' lines. So as UT sinks precipitously in ranking among international universities, cuts the budgets of area centers, hacks away at degree requirements, and lays off staff and lecturers, we will be able to teach more classes about college sports.

A former UT regent wrote to me last week about UT athletics, saying: "It's out of control. Several of us tried to address it when we were on the Board of Regents. This is a BIG entertainment business ... and really not much more. Its connection to education is tenuous and becoming more so each year."

That says it all. Many college presidents say they can do nothing. Others, like the president of UT, actively fuel the fire. And even sober-minded regents know the fire is out of control.

At least Nero did something while Rome burned. Where's Johnny Gimble when we need him?

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