Wednesday October 5th, 2011

Hollywood inhabitants always joke that nobody can understand the profit-and-loss statements of films. There's an old expression: "We shoulda shot the deal instead of the movie - it's got a better plot." The same, it seems to me, could be said of the economics of college athletics.

Now, let's take a look at the incredibly popular college football: it fills stadiums more than some professional teams, earns outrageous amounts of television money, sells oodles of high-priced memorabilia and on top of all that, the performers - the players - don't get paid a penny. Not even Hollywood producers can work that scam. But still, even with all of that income, only fourteen athletic departments show a profit.

That's because football, with some help from men's basketball, must pick up the bills for all the other sports that lose money; in addition, many of these charity sports still operate on the luxurious revenue sport model, adding to the money vacuum. In a fascinating Bloomberg article about athletics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the authors Curtis Eichelberger and Oliver Staley point out that the Scarlet Knights' women's basketball coach made $1.3 million a year, plus allowances for a car and golf, even though the program last year drew barely an average of 3,000 fans to home games and lost the athletic department $2.2 million. Meanwhile, 40 professors in the history department at Rutgers had their desk telephones removed in order to cut costs.

The Big East added the well-known east-coast team, Texas Christian University as a football member. That's nothing. The small-time ECAC - Eastern Collegiate Athletic Association - now has teams located from Connecticut to Colorado in ... lacrosse.

Clark Kerr, who was the head of the California university system back when "California education" was not an oxymoron, opined that the modern American university's purpose, "has come to be defined as providing parking for the faculty, sex for the students and athletics for the alumni." OK, given that student sex and faculty parking are a given, couldn't we just switch most intercollegiate athletics to the intramural? Surely, there are enough professional teams for the alumni to turn to for their amusement.

I'm all for the wonderful intrinsic values of sport: exercise and competition and team spirit, but especially in these parlous economic times, it would make much more monetary sense to conduct minor college sports on an intramural basis. Would the universities' educational mission be diminished any by that decision? Would good student applicants reject them for lack of league lacrosse games? Come on.

All the worse, the current national model has it that some impoverished kid from the inner city risks concussions and obesity to play football in order to pay for the scholarship of a javelin thrower and the salary of an assistant swimming coach and the plane fare for the volleyball team. That's a disgrace. Where is it written that this is the way an athletic department should be operated: on the shoulder pads of poor kids and the telephonic deprivations of poor history professors?

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