When Did the Tail Start Wagging the Dog?

Division I sports teams have become training programs for the pros – and the consequences for those campuses are real.

Readers from an earlier generation might remember the 1940 movie, “Knute Rockne All American,” starring Pat O’Brien as Rockne and Ronald Reagan as George Gipp. Rockne was the greatest football coach of his day – possibly the greatest ever – and he fundamentally established Notre Dame as a football power, winning four national championships between 1919 and 1930.

In 1920, George Gipp, a star player from early in Rockne’s career, died at the age of 25 of a streptococcal infection. In 1928, with Notre Dame down 6-0 to Army at the half, Rockne gave the team his famous “Gipper” speech, recalling Gipp’s (probably apocryphal) deathbed request to tell the team, some time when it was down, to “win just one for the Gipper.” Now highly motivated, Notre Dame went out for the second half, promptly scored 12 unanswered points, and won the game.

And that’s how college football used to be (at least in the movies).

Today? Not so much.

Today, college athletics (especially football and basketball) has become an industry. Reporting on 2011 academic year data, a May 14, 2012, article in USA Today noted that 10 of the 227 Division I athletic programs had more than $100 million in total annual revenue, and one generated more than $150 million!

We might reasonably assume that these highly successful programs would be an importance source of revenue for their often cash-strapped campuses – well, we might assume that, but we would be wrong. Despite the immense sums of money from gate receipts, from donor contributions, and from television revenue – all of which is tax-free, since the universities themselves are public, not-for-profit entities – all but seven universities had to subsidize their athletic programs. In fact, 88 of them subsidized athletics by more than $10 million.

Money for these subsidies came from state appropriations (which are declining in most states), or from tuition. No wonder tuition has been increasing so rapidly!

So where does all this money go? How is it possible to generate so much money and still be in the red?

Well, it’s all about being competitive. If University X has a 60,000-seat football stadium, University Y needs one of 70,000. If University X has an athletic complex with high-end residence halls, workout facilities and dining rooms for the exclusive use of varsity athletes, then University Y needs all that, plus a sauna facility. These facilities are expensive. It is unreasonable to assume that there would ever be money left over for the benefit of the general student body. After all, the students come to the university in the first place to watch athletic events, don’t they?

None of this is hyperbole. In an effort to become one of the handful of schools actually making money with its football program, university after university has ploughed more and more money into their programs, bidding up the price for football coaches. Here is an interesting statistic from Deadspin on May 9 of this year: The highest paid state employee in 26 states is a football coach. (Not to be outdone, a basketball coach is the highest paid state employee in 12 other states – and in one state, the basketball coach and the football coach are tied as the highest paid state employee.) Only in five states does the president of the state’s largest university have a larger salary than the football or basketball coach.

So who is really running the university? The president or the football coach?

And the situation continues to deteriorate. A Nov. 7, 2013, article in Inside Higher Ed reports that the salaries of football coaches at Division I universities are up an average of 10 percent this year, and up 90 percent since 2006. (In comparison, the salaries of faculty increased by 15 percent over the same time period.)

So simple arithmetic would tell us that Division I universities value football six times more than they do instruction.

Why else would the University of Alabama pay their football coach $5.5 million dollars a year? And it’s not just about paying a coach for winning a national championship. The head football coach at the University of Arkansas also is paid more than $5 million a year, and Arkansas doesn’t even have a winning record this year.

Division I football and basketball is no longer about teams representing their schools. Rather, the college teams have become training programs for professional leagues. Education has become incidental, where it occurs at all. The tail is wagging the dog.

If you hear a whirling sound, it is George Gipp and Knute Rockne, turning over in their graves.