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Dorothy, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore


Frank Deford is one of America’s most recognized and honored writers in the field of sports and beyond.  He is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.  Mr. Deford was recently interviewed by Renee Montagne on the daily show, The Morning Edition.  He was asked about the interplay between the massive spending on athletics by colleges and universities with top level athletic departments and the struggles those same institutions face when looking at spending on their academic missions.

Mr. Deford had some strong advice for college administrators.  He noted that when discussing movies people in Hollywood are fond of saying that nobody can understand the profit-loss statements of films.  There is an old Hollywood expression that says maybe the studios should have shot the deal instead of the film because it has a better plot.

College football games at major universities fill massive stadiums.  Teams benefit from huge TV contracts.  Their schools sell tons of expensive memorabilia and well-heeled donors give huge sums of money to their favorite programs.  Yet the NCAA reports that only 14 schools actually turned a profit on athletics during the 2009-2010 academic year.  This is because football, and to some extent men’s basketball, must pay the bills for all of the other sports sponsored by these schools.

Yet the so-called “minor sports” often don’t operate on a business model; but rather on some model of a luxury income charity.  Mr. Deford pointed to a piece aired on the Bloomberg cable TV network,  reported by two commentators, that pointed out that Rutgers’ women’s basketball coach, C. Vivian Stringer, earns $1.3 million per year, plus allowances for a car and a golf club membership even though the Scarlet Knights’ women’s team only averages about 3,000 fans per home game and last year reported an operating loss of some $2.2 million.  Meanwhile, in a cost cutting measure the school’s history department removed phones from the offices of 40 history professors.

Mr. Deford went on to note that the Big East athletic conference recently admitted Texas Christian as a member; TCU is located in Ft. Worth, Texas.  The ECAC, a lower division athletic conference, now has lacrosse teams located from Connecticut to Colorado.  It doesn’t take much insight to understand how things like this impact athletic department budgets.

Mr. Deford referred to a conversation with Clark Kerr, who at one time was the Chancellor of the University of California system.  Dr. Kerr opined that the modern U.S. university’s  purpose seems to be to provide parking for faculty, sex and parties for students and athletics for alumni.  Noticeably absent in this is any idea of providing a quality education for students.

According to Mr. Deford, this is made worse by the perception that some impoverished inner-city kid is risking life and limb now and in the future playing football to provide scholarship money for a javelin thrower, a salary for an assistant swimming coach and travel expenses for a volleyball team.

The United States is the only country in the world that has a sports model where athletes hone their craft on the dollars of institutions of higher learning who for the most part subsidize their athletic departments with monies that otherwise would be spent on academics.  Does this help explain why the most recent United Nations educational rankings of the 34 nations listed by the UN as “developed” showed that U.S. students are ranked number 25 in science achievement and number 17 in math achievement?

A football coach whose team consistently finishes in the lower half of the conference will soon be out of a job.  Yet it appears to many observers that we routinely accept mediocre academic performances from our students.  There are many who believe that this is not a sensible way to run a country.

Frank Deford’s commentary can be heard on Morning Edition on Wednesdays from WHSU in Hartford, Connecticut.  The interview on which this article is based can be found by going to http://www.npr.org/2011/10/05/141047227/the-luxurious-revenue-college-sports-model.


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