Cheer your teams, pay your loans, and mind your business.

by David Zirin

"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." - Frederick Douglass

On Thursday, I was proud to take part in a student walkout at the University of Maryland in defense of public education. It was just one link in a National Day of Action that saw protests in more than 32 states across the country. I am not a student, and haven't been since those innocent days when Monica Lewinsky mattered, but I was asked to come speak at a post walkout teach-in about the way sports is used to attack public education. It might sound like a bizarre topic, but it's the world that students see every day.

At the University of Maryland, as tuition has been hiked and classes cut, football coach Ralph Friedgen makes a base salary of 1.75 million bucks, which would be outrageous even if the team weren't two steps past terrible. Friedgen also gets perks like a $50,000 bonus if none of his players are arrested during the course of the season.

Ground zero of the student protest movement is the University of California at Berkeley. Over at Berkeley, students are facing 32% tuition hikes, while the school pays football coach Jeff Tedford $2.8 million a year and is finishing more than $400 million in renovations on the football stadium. This is what students see: boosters and alumni come first, while they've been instructed to cheer their teams, pay their loans, and mind their business.

The counterargument is that college athletic departments fund themselves and actually put money back into a school's general fund. This is simply not true. The October Knight Commission report of college presidents stated that the 25 top football schools had revenues on average of $3.9 million in 2008. The other 94 ran deficits averaging $9.9 million. When athletic departments run deficits, it's not like the football coach takes a pay cut. In other words, if the team is doing well, the entire school benefits. If the football team suffers, the entire school suffers. This, to put it mildly, is financial lunacy. A school would statistically be better off if it took its endowment to Vegas and just bet it all on black.

If state colleges are hurting, your typical urban public school is in a world of pain with budgets slashed to the bone. Politicians act like these are problems beyond their control like the weather. ("50% chance of sun and a 40% chance of losing music programs.")

In truth, they are the result of a comprehensive attack on public education that has seen the system starved. One way this has been implemented is through stadium construction, the grand substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. Over the last generation, we've seen $30 billion in public funds spent on stadiums. They were presented as photogenic solutions to deindustrialization, declining tax bases, and suburban flight. The results are now in and they don't look good for the home teams. University of Maryland sports economists Dennis Coates and University of Alberta Brad R. Humphreys studied stadium funding over 30 years and failed to find one solitary example of a sports franchise lifting or even stabilizing a local economy. They concluded the opposite: "a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area....Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city's economy." These projects achieve so little because the jobs created are low wage, service sector, seasonal employment. Instead of being solutions of urban decay, the stadiums have been tools of organized theft: sporting shock doctrines for our ailing cities.

With crumbling schools, higher tuitions, and an Education Secretary in Arne Duncan who seems more obsessed with providing extra money for schools that break their teachers unions, it's no wonder that the anger is starting to boil over. It can also bubble up in unpredictable ways. On Wednesday night, after the University of Maryland men's basketball team beat hated arch-rival Duke, students were arrested after pouring into the streets surrounding the campus. In years past, these sporting riots have been testosterone run amok, frat parties of burning mattresses and excessive inebriation. This year it was different, with police needing to use pepper spray and horses to quell the 1,500 students who filled Route 1. In response, students chanted, "Defense! Defense!" At the Thursday teach in, I said to the students that I didn't think there was anything particularly political or interesting about a college sports riot. One person shot his hand up and said, "It wasn't a riot until the cops showed up." Everyone proceeded to applaud. I was surprised at first that these politically minded students would be defending a post-game melee, but no longer. The anger is real and it isn't going anywhere. While schools are paying football coaches millions and revamping stadiums, students are choosing between dropping out or living with decades of debt. One thing is certain: it aint a game.

Posted via web from entersxion


From the dark said...

All social change comes from the people demanding the change; independence from colonial dominance, racial equality, suffrage, the end the Vietnam War, decent working conditions, etc. The system never gives these things up easily. This does not mean we give up on government. Surrender the flag to no group. Make government serve the people, not some of the people; not just the rich, not just the corporations, not just power. But, remember we are part of the monster. Don't feed the monster!

Averien said...

Citing the athletic departments of schools in general is disingenuous. Women's athletics operate almost universally at financial losses. So do men's athletics, excluding football and basketball; these two, generally speaking, turn a profit. And that is just in ticket sales. School merchandise, bought in pride for student athletics, are not counted as "Athletic department" revenue. Neither are millions upon millions of dollars in alumni donations to the school at large-- donations sometimes fueled by athletic pride, and memories (and hopes) of better athletic times.
With the reality of school pride a strong influence in alumni involvement, and with the rather nebular, inconcrete methods available to identify with one's school scholastically, athletics offers an evaluation on objective terms to a schools success. Certainly that success isn't the most important measure a school can have, but it's easily understood. Without those feelings, without that association, donations slow. Studies cited have failed to account for this factor in self-association.
As for the professional influence, that's always a dicey sale. However, studies have shown that, particularly in smaller markets like Seattle, Denver, and Green Bay, a positive correlation exists between team success and local economy in relation to the rest of the nation. The influence of sports in cities with populations in the millions might well be minimal, simply because of reduced opportunity, but to assert that, say, the Packers have no influence on Green Bay and Wisconsin seems to border on the absurd. Whether the net effect is economically beneficial, it seems similarly silly to suggest that the net overall effect on New Orleans would be better if the Saints did not exist.
When one deals with hundreds of millions of dollars, the impact is generally not simply at the face value of the circumstance. Yes, the creation of stadiums is temporary or seasonal jobs, but the money that flows in the forms of property taxes, hotel and restaurant revenues from visiting teams and fans (more prolific in college teams than professional), and further "hidden" impacts are challenging to discern, and don't seem to have thoroughly been addressed here. As an example, most retailers have seasonal spikes of employment from November through January, a total period covering about 60 days. Yet, those 60 days largely fund those same companies through the other 305 days, as the revenue at those times is so high that service through the rest of the year is nearly a loss-leader.
Should a strong athletic department be the primary goal of a school? No. Should athletic departments be maintained only if they are profitable? No-- because studies have shown that athletes in school are more likely to succeed, not only in undergrad programs where "athletic grade inflation" might occur, but in attaining higher degrees as well. Students involved in athletics have shown a statistical tendency to be less involved in criminal behavior, too. If the goal of a university is to provide an overall education for the betterment of one's life, an encouragement to participate in these deficit running programs, rather than a demonizing of them, may well lead to a more healthy, more productive overall student body.
I do not deny the corruption involved in college sports; indeed, that is a major reason I do not consider my fan of NCAA sports. I do not deny that there are negative social impacts on athlete-worship that has really become pervasive in society. But the disingenuous, half-honest research as the type advocated here only works at the barest surface level investigation. The salaries of coaches, the costs of stadiums, and such are frankly drops in the bucket in the face of the overall national education spending problems, and are one of the very few areas that have shown positive correlation to overall student success and the financial success of the institutions in question.

From the dark said...

Averien, really!

TR said...

Averian, when some elite coaches' base salaries approach 8 figures and the cost of athletic facilities goes into the hundreds of millions, it's not a "drop in the bucket".

And no less biased a source than Sports Illustrated has punctured the "fund raising" bubble. Institutions without full-time sports programs get more donations from alumni to the college's general funds--that's because the sports booster organizations don't compete for them.

I don't mind sports in higher education, but we ought to move away from intercollegiate and toward a model based more in intramurals. More exercise for more students = more health and less obesity.

Averien said...

There is no coach that has an 8 figure salary in the college world; Mack Brown at Texas is the highest, and he has a salary of 5.1M/year. By contrast, the athletics department at Texas bring in about $93M in revenue. Note that this is revenue directly attributed to the sports programs, and does not include tuition, donations, or other considerations influenced by the sports programs but not specifically linked to them. (donations to a particular sports program, though, are included) So, the worst offender is eating up about 1/18th of the income that sports bring to the school. While this year, the expenses of the athletic department as a whole are higher than the revenue (about $7 more), the football program is still incredibly profitable for the school.

NCAA football and men's basketball are now, and typically have been, sources of income for the major conferences. This is not to say that the athletics departments as a whole are-- no women's sports, and very few men's sports other than the two cited, ever regularly raise a profit for the school; the cost of tuition, facilities, training, recruitment, and such don't bring in the direct dollars. As a result, the people in charge don't have the huge salaries.

But football, for the schools that pay these multi-million-dollar-contracts *does*. It's silly to compare Texas' program, which is profitable and has that kind of money involved, to other schools that are not successful, and don't spend millions.

At the end of the day, look at the bottom line. Football, and men's basketball, bring in more money than they spend. With that being the case, where is the harm? Could the case be made that they are *not as beneficial as they could possibly be*? Perhaps. Probably, even. But this isn't a case of actual or active *harm*. NCAA football and men's basketball allow schools to support other departments that aren't as-- or at all-- profitable, and provide an objective face of success or failure that a populace too enamored of "what have you done for me lately" can rally behind or for.

So long as student athletes are actually being educated, and not abused, the programs are working. And in most (not all, but really in most) cases, the student athletes-- particularly the successful athletes-- score better than their peers, to a high enough degree that simply "passing them so they can play" is removed from the equation as a legitimate complaint.

Some schools fail at this-- and I'll be the first to admit that men's basketball in particular, but also football in the SEC, are prime examples of this. It's not universal, of course-- Notre Dame, George Town, and others post scrupulously high graduation rates. To again bring up Texas, there is a need there for a refocusing on academic priorities, as Texas graduates something like 50% of their football starters. THAT aspect of their collegiate athletics program is deplorable, and must be addressed to maintain the credibility of collegiate sports.

But no matter how it is spun, the big-market athletic programs of football and men's basketball are not a financial harm to the institution, and have a general tendency to bring more public support than disapproval.