How college athletics has become a boondoggle for everyone but the students

Columnist
Yahoo Sports
The College Football playoff has generated about $470 million in found revenue. (AP)
The College Football playoff has generated about $470 million in found revenue. (AP)

In 2011, the University of Michigan athletic department employed 253 people, according to state records. Four years later, in 2015, it was 334, up 32 percent.

During that period, the average salary grew 22.4 percent, to $89,851. Over a seven-year span, the number of athletic department employees making six figures went from 30 to 81.

Michigan is hardly unique. It's on par with its peers. Critics point to the salaries of big-name coaches, but it's everything that is growing in college sports.

It's the National Collegiate Industrial Complex.

Soaring media rights and vast new revenue streams continue to flood department coffers. Like any good non-profit bureaucracy, they have deftly figured out how to spend … mostly on themselves.

Michigan didn't add 32 percent more sports in those four years, or 32 percent more scholarship athletes, requiring 32 percent more staffing.

It just made about $30 million more dollars per year, from $122.7 million in 2011 to $152.5 million in 2015. Most of the increase came courtesy of the Big Ten Network.

So it spent the money: on new workers and new raises and more assistant directors and more construction and additional private plane flight hours and the gold plating of everything.

On Tuesday, SportsBusinessDaily reported the Big Ten is close to agreeing to a six-year deal with Fox Sports for half its television rights. It would pay about $250 million per year, or $17.9 million per school. And that's just half the deal. CBS and ESPN will pay handsomely to split the rest.

This report comes a little over a week after the NCAA agreed to an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension with CBS and Turner to broadcast the men's basketball tournament. It brings the annual value of the event from $786 million to $1.1 billion, an increase of $314 million per year.

That's new money. That's found money. That's money that has yet to be used or allocated.

It's the same as the college football playoff generating about $470 million in revenue that didn't exist three years ago. Or conference-owned cable television channels hauling in hundreds of millions. The SEC Network, which launched in August 2014, doled out $455.8 million in fiscal 2015, $31.2 million per school. The New York Times predicted last year that Big Ten Network revenue would soon exceed $40 million per school, per year.

All of this money – namely all of this brand-new money that isn't even needed – ratchets up cries to share it with the student-athletes.

That's the exact kind of black/white wedge issue however that college sports executives' love. It's so complicated, so all or nothing, so emotionally charged that they can use it to stall any progress or let the entire debate get bogged down in nonsense.

They can turn Marxist and note wrestlers work just as hard as football players. They can throw up their hands at Title IX. They can form another subcommittee and stage February meetings somewhere warm.

And they can hire another 100 people and refurbish their corner office. Or build an entirely new one, because, you know, it's good for recruiting or something. They can spend every penny so they don't actually have any left and then cry poverty (generally less than 20 athletic departments nationally turn a "profit" each year).

A lot of them still hit actual students up for athletic fees, because college isn't expensive enough.

Very few coaches, administrators or staffers get into college athletics because they think they'll make lots of money. They are well meaning and love college athletics and college athletes. These are often talented, driven people. There are easier ways to earn a living than college sports, with their late nights and jammed weekends. Yet there are piles of gold now and not just for top coaches.

So maybe before everything boils down to simply, "Will you pay the players?" – still a reasonable argument, mind you – college leaders could start by doing something easier … listening to them.

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The stories of spring 2016 in college sports have revolved around two things: all that additional money and more rulings and decisions that treat the players with little respect.

Forever and ever, everything in college athletics has been filtered from the top down – votes, policy, even media coverage comes via the prism of administrators, coaches, commissioners and presidents.

Student-athlete representation on various committees has long been seen as symbolic – and even then the turnover is too swift to spur change. Unions aren't allowed. You can't have an agent to represent you. The NCAA wishes Ramogi Huma, who, motivated by his experience as a UCLA linebacker, founded the advocacy group the National College Players Association, would just go away.

Media interviews are mostly conducted with a department staffer sitting in. The most outspoken student-athletes are often controlled further. In-season social media bans remain common. A beat reporter who dares call a parent for perspective is going to deal with retribution.

It's the coach's voice and the coach's voice only.

College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma (AP)
College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma (AP)

So transfer rules are set so that a millionaire coach won't be inconvenienced, not how it will alter the life of an average player, who can be barred from dozens of potential options. Coaches are too worried that some state secret will be leaked to a future opponent, even though the NFL and NBA pick guys up on a weekly basis and survive.

It doesn't cost a dime to treat these players like you'd treat your own kid.

Satellite recruiting camps were banned in a hurry because some schools feared Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer plucking an extra recruit or two, and some coaches wanted to make sure they could go on vacation (not that they had to run an off-campus recruiting camp).

Ignored was that high school kids have a chance at exposure. Any and every college can attend, say, a Michigan camp in Alabama or an Ohio State camp in Florida. That includes small programs, even Division III's, which don't have the resources (a slew of grad assistants pouring through high school game tapes) to discover talent the way an Alabama or Ohio State can. You go hoping Urban will like you. You leave with someone else's affection. It's still a victory.

Then there are the non-university affiliated camps such as Sound Mind, Sound Body, which began outside Detroit but has begun to go national in recent years. For kids from junior high up, it was a cheap, local, two-day exposure camp with half the time spent on academics and life skills.

The top recruits brought in the big-name coaches, but they were allowed to teach on the field, too. The impact was in the one-on-one interaction for all campers.

In big cities, the high school dropout rate for boys is an ongoing tragedy that affects nearly every facet of society. The impact of a kid getting teaching and encouragement from a college coach (even if he'll never recruit him) was incalculable.

If a ninth grader decides to keep playing high school football, it means he's decided to keep going to high school. Maybe that isn't an issue in every community. It is the issue in some. It is why Sound Mind's website brags not just about the 1,000-plus campers who went on to play in college, but the 10,000-plus who went on to graduate from high school.

"I'm not worried about the SEC … SMSB did so much for so many," tweeted Michigan cornerback Jordan Lewis after the NCAA ruling.

"Why ban positivity?" tweeted Ohio State running back Mike Weber.

Both hail from the city of Detroit. How many people on the NCAA committee even considered the perspective of a teenager from some place like that before voting?

Did any even ask?

When Jim Harbaugh took his Michigan football team to Florida for spring break, the SEC clutched its pearls in horror. While players praised their week of fun in the sun, and their parents said they were relieved they were with the team, not some all-you-can-drink bar, rival commissioners and coaches condemned it as exploitive.

These same commissioners and coaches claim a few days at a bowl game (even if it's in Shreveport or Detroit) are a cherished reward, of course. Then again, most administrators and coaches have contracts that dole out "performance bonuses" for their teams appearing in a bowl.

There is none for spring practice. Yet.

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If they want to share more of the avalanche of money, there are plenty of ways other than hiring more staff or pouring more into nebulous concepts such as "marketing."

According to the Macon Telegraph, the University of Georgia paid the entertainer Ludacris $65,000 to perform for 15 minutes prior to last week's spring football game. They also needed to provide food and ground transportation for 10, plus "vodka, cognac, wine, tequila" and "a box of Trojan Magnum condoms." Good times.

It was probably cool that Ludacris was there for 15 minutes. Funding a couple more scholarships might have been cooler.

The NCAA is vehemently opposed to paying the players or even allowing them to profit off their own image and likeness. (It's worked well for the Olympics.) Doing so might chip into the revenue coming in, after all.

Why do the schools limit the number of scholarships handed out though? Why do they not provide additional educational opportunities for athletes? Not just in football and basketball, but all sports. Non-revenue teams exist essentially as a form of welfare from what football and men's basketball brings in, a questionable practice but one that isn't reasonably going to change.

So go with it. Why does women's gymnastics have an average roster of 19, according to scholarshipstats.com, yet can only offer 12 scholarships, which they often divvy up? Why not all 19? The money is there. Or coming. Men's gymnastics is capped at just 6.5 scholarships. That, leadership says, is because of Title IX. Fine, so add seven to each side.

That's 14 more kids getting a full ride. Then move on to soccer and softball and swimming and everything else.

Or they can add a hundred new jobs and dole out bigger raises and construct bigger facilities that no one rightfully needs. They can put the kids paying their own way in a nicer locker room or hire Ludacris to 15 minutes. Before long, it's all spent and there is nothing left for the players.

Then they can keep dropping draconian rulings and say any solution is simply impossible while they stand around and argue about real dangerous, pressing issues such as where Jim Harbaugh wants to stage a practice.

Better form a committee for that. Better meet for a few days at a hotel in Florida … some place proper, with Siesta or Key in its name, of course.

 

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