The Luxurious Revenue College Sports Model

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 college football — it's incredibly popular, filling stadiums, pulling down lollapalooza television money, selling oodles of high-priced memorabilia. Plus, 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, only 14 athletic departments show a profit.

That's because football — perhaps with some help from men's basketball — must pick up the bills for all the many other sports that lose money.

However, it's often the case that the charity sports still operate on the luxurious revenue sport model. In a fascinating article on Bloomberg about athletics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 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 — yes, golf — even though the program drew barely 3,000 fans to home games and lost $2.2 million last year.

Meanwhile, 40 professors in the history department at Rutgers had their telephones removed.

The Big East added that well-known East Coast team, Texas Christian, as a football member. That's nothing. The small-time Eastern Collegiate Athletic Association now has teams located from Connecticut to Colorado. In lacrosse.

Look, I'm all for the wonderful intrinsic values of sport: exercise and competition and team spirit — but especially in these parlous economic times, couldn't many minor college sports be conducted on an intramural basis? Would the universities' educational missions be diminished by that decision? Would good student applicants reject them for lack of league lacrosse games? Come on.

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.

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 that's the way an athletic department should be operated, on the shoulder pads of poor kids and the telephonic deprivations of poor history professors?

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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