Knight Commission reveals academics are being shortchanged

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Less than a week after a shake-up among major college conferences in search of lucrative television revenue, a new report warned that spending on major college athletics programs is increasingly coming at the expense of academics and will do so even more as many schools dip into their general funds to stay competitive on the field.

The report, which represents the culmination of an 18-month study by a group of university presidents and other campus leaders forming the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, concluded that athletic spending at 97 public schools in the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1A) grew 38 percent on average from 2005 to 2008 -- almost double the 20.5 percent growth on academic spending over the same period. Yet only seven athletics programs have generated enough revenue to earn money in each of the past five years, according to a USA Today analysis cited in the article. Programs whose expenses outweigh their revenues are left looking to make up the difference in other ways.

"Even as this report goes to press, high-profile athletic conferences are expanding their memberships in an effort to boost television market share and revenues they hope will follow," the report concluded. "Such changes will likely make it harder than ever for the vast majority of colleges to keep up with continued escalation in spending on coaches' salaries, facilities, and other trappings of athletic prestige. The predictable result: increased subsidy of athletics programs at the cost of academic programs, higher mandatory athletics fees for all students at many institutions, and a reduction in sports offerings -- including dropping of teams that are not generating revenues."

And most of the 95 presidents who participated in a 2009 survey conducted by the Knight Commission said that the gaps between the haves and have-nots of college athletics will widen.

"Presidents in the survey generally communicated a sense that you might get increased revenue, but they also know that if that occurs, it just gets absorbed and nothing really changes except the health of the entire FBS system -- all 120 schools suffer," commission co-chairman and president of Southern Methodist University R. Gerald Turner said. "The disparity between the top and the middle -- let alone the bottom -- continues to grow."

The survey found that a large majority of the presidents believed current revenue and spending trends are not sustainable for athletic programs as a whole. Nearly half of the presidents also expressed concern about the proportion of institutional resources being used to support athletic programs.

Presidents also felt limited in their ability to keep athletic spending in check by making decisions and reforms on their own and saw increasing revenue as the best way to remain competitive while reducing athletics' reliance on institutional funding, according to William E. Kirwan, commission co-chairman and chancellor of the University of Maryland system.

To combat this problem, the report proposed reforms that would provide athletics programs and universities with the information, expectations and incentives needed to achieve a better balance in their spending priorities. The first step, the report states, is to make spending information by athletic departments readily available to those that have a stake in how universities spend money, including trustees, state legislators, students and parents.

The study also recommended limiting the number of non-coaching personnel -- such as video personnel -- teams could employ, as well as reducing the number of football scholarships by eight to 10 from the current 85. It also proposed banning schools from participating in championships if the current team did not meet academic requirements, as well as establishing a revenue-sharing formula to reward those that do.

Penn State University president Graham Spanier was unsure about the revenue-sharing system but supported the Knight Commission's initiative.

"I think the Commission's recommendations have considerable merit," Mr. Spanier wrote in an e-mail to the Post-Gazette. "The inflationary forces impacting intercollegiate athletics are not sustainable for most universities, and escalating financial pressures must be contained. Salary expectations in particular have skyrocketed nationally and are not always consistent with the values and budgets of academe."

Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist approved of the report but questioned the extent to which the National Collegiate Athletic Association would agree with some of its recommendations.

"It's very difficult to have substantial reform that's geared toward the NCAA," he said. "The NCAA is essentially run by coaches, [heads of] athletic departments, and conference commissioners. ... The NCAA doesn't want to have financial responsibility if coaches' salaries are going to be held down because the NCAA is coaches."

NCAA Interim President Jim Isch said that while the NCAA and its member schools disagree on the post-season penalty for schools that fail to meet academic requirements -- especially for teams that are improving academically -- they agree with the report's goals.


Chris Merriman: cmerriman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2193.


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