Tahlequah Daily Press

January 18, 2013

Scales tipped in favor of NCAA athletes


TAHLEQUAH — How much does it cost to put the average American student through college? Many people might be shocked – but they probably won’t be surprised to learn athletes are worth more than students with superior academic credentials.

A report by the American Institutes for Research indicates most universities under the NCAA Division 1 umbrella spend three to six times as much on an athlete as they do to educate the average student. The report shows that in 2010, Division 1 institutions spent $39,000 on the average athlete, while the average biology or English major was worth a comparatively paltry investment of $11,800. The gap is even wider for the Football Bowl Subdivision, where an athlete was worth $92,000 on average, while another student might be worth about $14,000.

If those figures aren’t startling enough, data indicates the chasm is growing wider. Moreover, while about a quarter of the athletic departments make enough money to stand on their own, the rest must be subsidized by their respective universities to help pick up the tab. Those costs are usually funded by student activity fees – a reality that will sound familiar to students at NSU, OU and OSU.

Another fact the average individual may find troubling: About one-third of athletic spending at Division 1 universities goes for salaries and compensation, while facilities and equipment eat up 20 percent of the budget. It’s not uncommon for a head football coach at a major university to have a salary significantly higher than that of the institution’s president. This is notably the case at OU, where Bob Stoops was compensated more than $4.5 million last year, while President David Boren was paid less than $400,000.

OU fans may question the wisdom of such a lavish package for Stoops, especially in light of the Sooners’ 41-13 Cotton Bowl loss this year to the Texas A&M Aggies. Boren, on the other hand, is a former U.S. senator, and was able to parlay his wide net of influence to pull up the ailing school by its bootstraps when he took the helm. It should be noted that while Boren’s pay comes entirely from OU itself, only $250,000 of Stoops’ compensation does; the rest comes from “unrestricted private funds” and bonuses. Typically this means alumni and boosters.

Many folks will call this an outrage. But before patrons and parents raise a chorus to cry foul and demand more parity between athletics and academics, we first must assign blame. To use a well-worn cliche, we’ve seen the enemy, and it is us.

Universities spend the way they do because a good athletics program lures more students, athletes and academics alike. Respectable sports programs also draw in good athletes, who in turn make the program even better – and as it improves, the student body grows, swelling the institution’s coffers even further.

Solid athletics programs also attract billions of dollars from alumni and corporations looking to link their names with a standout player, coach or team. And as government funding continues to dry up, especially in states like Oklahoma, educational institutions will increasingly look for outside money to supplement their budgets. This is why, even at Tahlequah High School, we hear of businesses sponsoring various facets of a team – even up to putting a name on a touchdown.

The alumni have their checkbooks, but so do fans. One need look no further than a Bedlam game between OU and OSU to grasp the fierceness with which some fans will defend their teams – with both words and cash. Far more folks will pay a couple of hundred dollars to snare a coveted Bedlam ticket than will pay 10 bucks to listen to a lecture sponsored by the science club, or attend a symphony presented by the university orchestra.

Fortunately for the academic end of the spectrum, funds generated by successful athletic programs often benefit other students through more than mere school reputation. Monies often fund facilities that can be used by the student body in general, or other academic departments. Non-athletes can also live in the usually-posh athletic dorms. So it is possible for the rest of the campus population to dine on crumbs that fall from the tables of the royalty.

Yes, it’s unfair, and yes, it’s in many ways self-defeating, since only a tiny fraction of college athletes will take their skills to a professional level, while the opposite is true of exceptional academics. But until the public changes its perception of sports and their veneration of athletes, the scales are unlikely to tip for this particular inequality. We’re a market-based economy, and for now, sports is what sells.