Does the Athletic Department Tail Wag the Academic Dog? You Bet!


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A few of the questions asked and answered by Gilbert Gaul in his Billion Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big Money Culture of College Football:

Q: Why can loyal fans of Big Time college football write off 80% of their seat donation, a substantial surcharge on the ticket price, because it is classified as a charitable deduction, even though it is used to fund football operations.
A: Because many of our representatives in Congress have deep attachments to their state’s flagship institutions and block passage of changes in the tax code that would adversely affect Big Time sports.

Q: Why does the University of Kansas, and other landlocked universities with little history in marginal Olympic sports, have a female rowing team.
A: Because Title IX has insisted upon equal participation (though not equal financial support) for female and male athletes and a female rowing team with 100+ members offsets the 125 guys who put on football uniforms on Saturday.

Q: Why does the University of Oregon build a $42 million athletic training complex with an enormous weight room, staff nutritionists, and a complex of tutoring space and personnel  – a place where non-athletes and faculty can get into the lobby but not beyond?
A: Because Nike founder and President and Oregon graduate and booster Phil Knight puts up the money.

Q. Why does the same university provide 20 times the support for each of its athletes as it does for each of the members of its Honors Program?
A: Because Phil Knight…

Q: Why doesn’t Eastern Michigan (or Northern Illinois) ever have a chance to rise to prominence in college football?
A: Because the 60 teams in the five “power conferences” have commandeered lucrative television contracts and are essentially indifferent to the plight of the have-nots, those institutions where ticket revenue, licensing agreements, and media contracts are insufficient to offset the operational expenses and where good portions of student activity fees go to support teams whose games are poorly attended?

Q: Why was Charlie Weis, who had a lackluster 37-25 record in five seasons at Notre Dame, able to walk away from one of America’s favorite teams with $27 million dollars, a figure well beyond what he earned in five years coaching?
A: Because in the middle of a successful second season, the athletic director tore up his contract and gave him a generous extension. When Weis went 16-21 in seasons 3-5, the rabid alumni forced his removal and the administration ate the remaining three years of his contract, a decision that was made easy because of those success-obsessed alumni and because the university has a deep endowment.

Q: Why does the President of ESPN have greater control over Big Time college sports at the institutions of the power conferences than do the Presidents of those institutions?
A. Because they present league commissioners with big and irresistible bags of money, money which enables them to pay their football coaches 2 and 3 more than the college presidents make and 30 to 45 times what full professors make.

Q: Why did a small town Tuscaloosa baker have to temporarily quit making 3,000 cookies with the Alabama “A” on them each home game weekend, and at other times?
A: Because the leviathan Alabama athletic department employs investigators and lawyers who vigilantly patrol branding infringements. [Happy ending: crowd pressure led the university to reconsider.]

This is a timely book as the speculation begins on which teams should qualify for the BCS playoff, which player should win the Heisman Trophy, and which coaches have their heads on the chopping block. It may even lead you to take a walk on a Saturday afternoon rather than watch the historic rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota or the inter-sectional game between Boise State and Memphis.

Gaul is interested in “following the money” and thus devotes less time to the pernicious effect on the educational mission than does Beer and Circuses: How Big-Time Colllege Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber’s trenchant 2001 analysis of the college scene. Gaul makes many comparisons between the state of affairs at the turn of the century and today; even the cynical Sperber would be shocked at the escalation of the budgets and the separation of the athletic departments into a parallel universe.

While Gaul has a few things to say about the unfortunate also-rans in Division I-A, he touches on Division II and Division III hardly at all. He does point out that small, non-athletic scholarship schools like Haverford and Williams offer more opportunities for participating on more sports teams that do the big boys where one might expect that the revenues generated by football and basketball would help fund wrestling and rugby as well as volley-ball and cross-country. But the well-paid coaches don’t want to share with anyone else, especially those team sports whose audiences are measured with three rather than six digits. And the fans don’t care if the alma mater doesn’t have a water-polo team.

I’d like to see what Gaul would have to say about non-Division I sports programs that in their efforts to raise needed funds and justify their claim that they build college cohesion resort to imitating, at times comically, the mega-programs: Midnight Madness, painted faces in the arena, hysterical courtside announcers.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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