Football 10, academic quality 0

Albert Einstein’s familiar quotation – “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – is reflected among a large majority of US institutions fielding National College Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I athletic programmes.

USA Today annually reports the revenue and expenses of these major athletic programmes. Sadly, only 22 out of 227 NCAA Division I athletic programmes generate sufficient revenue to match their expenses. The remaining 205 have their losses covered by the sponsoring institution.

In its 15 May 2012 edition USA Today noted that the “…gap between those that can keep pace with the rising costs and those that can't is rising”.

While other minor intercollegiate sports are charged to athletic budgets, it is football and basketball, both male sports, that produce both the highest costs and potentially the balancing revenue.

Both sports provide recurring high drama and seasonal entertainment for local, regional and national fans. Traditional institutional rivalries, and bowl and conference appearances are said to foster institutional brand, applications and accompanying donations.

The high profile programmes that produce the bulk of the drama, entertainment and national media coverage consistently remain in the black. The University of Texas Longhorns’ 2011 athletic programme, whose receipts exceeded its expenses by a little over $16 million, is the unquestioned exception.

The remaining more than 200 athletic programmes require annual subsidies. The difference is covered by institutional funds and student fees. Some programmes are subsidised by over 80%.

Mitchell Stevens, a Stanford associate professor of education, suggests that the football appeal is based more on the pursuit of athletic status or conference membership than academic quality.

Sadly, the majority of institutions have placed themselves on a treadmill to oblivion in trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Each year a few more institutions field teams in their pursuit of athletic status. The National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame has announced that six new Division I teams will begin competing between 2012 and 2014. Few, if any, of these additions enjoy recognition beyond their immediate region.

Internally, except for the coaches, players and year-long support staff, few enjoy any tangible and enduring benefits beyond game day.

Huge salaries for coaches

For example, in the 2011 season, major college football head coaches’ average compensation was $1.47 million, an increase of nearly 55% since 2006.

In the Football Bowl Subdivision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 132 assistant coaches earned $250,000 or more, up from 106 last year. Within that group, 26 assistant football coaches are earning at least $400,000, double the number at that level a year ago.

Basketball coaching compensation appears to rise in parallel. Both have enjoyed increasing compensation while other employees at many major institutions have endured freezes and cutbacks.

Football and basketball players tend to enjoy training table meals, tutoring and others amenities that players of lesser sports and the majority, non-athlete student body do not have access to.

It is unlikely that start-up programmes building their rosters will be successful in recruiting competitive teams. It is more likely that they will face a major recruitment challenge.

They will have to mine deeper in the prospect pool, increasing the number of more academically questionable but possibly athletically talented prospects that have been passed over by the established programmes.

Where is the educational substance?

Football may provide some ephemeral seasonal sizzle, but where is the underlying educational substance?

Aspiring status-seeking institutions may be characterised as institutions with little or no identity beyond their immediate region. They are entering a competition in which they have little chance of financially breaking even, let alone winning.

Instead of strengthening their lower tier academic programmes, these institutions are planning costly recreational diversions appealing to a relatively small market. They have appeared to favour the very slim prospect of glory and gold over investing in academic quality.

The resources spent to implement and subsequently prop up these programmes could be used to improve their liberal arts and science, technology, engineering and mathematics programmes.

Institutions heavily subsidising athletic teams at the expense of academic programmes send a disturbing message regarding their priorities to potential international applicants.

A telling observation, relevant to international applicants vetting alternative US universities, recently appeared in USA Today: “Even as many universities continue to minimise salary increases for most employees (or to skip raises altogether), assistant football coaches are seeing already generous compensation packages grow. Meanwhile teachers and academic programmes are being cut.”

International students are drawn by indicators of academic quality and not ephemeral athletic status.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business in South Korea.