Friday, April 2, 2010

In the Supreme Hypocrisy Sweepstakes, the NCAA Has Opened a Slight Lead on University Administrators

No fewer than four headlines about topics touching on education have caught my eye in the last 24 hours. Two of them have to do with collegiate sports, two with other issues. Sports today; other topics tomorrow (I hope).

We start with the apparent inevitability that the whores brain trust at the NCAA will, sooner rather than later, announce that the field for the men’s national basketball tournament will be expanded from 65 teams to 96. The same NCAA that crows incessantly about “student-athletes” but won’t actually require programs to take some responsibility for the academic progress of their players (my screed here) now sends forth its VP Greg Shaheen to proclaim with a disingenuousness that would make Sarah Palin proud that, in the expanded format, “the amount of time student-athletes would be out of school would be roughly the same as the current model” and there’d be “a reduction in travel time.” Yeah, right. A team that would earn a 9-seed in the current arrangement would have to play on, say, Thursday against a 24-seed (!), meaning they’d miss class for a minimum of three days (Wednesday through Friday). If they win, they play again on Saturday (against an 8-seed). But at the end of the weekend, we’re only down to 32 teams, not the current 16. So there needs to be another game, probably against a 1-seed, on Tuesday, meaning those players would miss another three days (Monday through Wednesday). And if they keep winning, they’d be expected to play again on Thursday and Saturday. Then they could go home for two whole days of classes before having to show up, by NCAA dictum, at the Final Four site by Wednesday, with games Saturday and Monday. In other words, if a 9-seed or lower made it to the national championship game, they’d miss 8 of a series of 9 classes that meet MWF. Think that can’t happen? Given the stupidity with which the exalted selection committee under-values any team that isn’t from a so-called power conference, I don’t.

Let’s leave aside the dilution of the tournament with even more mediocre teams from big conferences: if NCAA lapdog Minnesota coach Tubby Smith really “[doesn’t] see any watering down at all,” then he’s even stupider than I thought. Let’s duck, too, the thorny issue of what to do with regular-season champions from smaller conferences: include them and their conference tournament is de-valued, exclude them and the regular season is de-valued (these teams are currently guaranteed a spot in the NIT, which would presumably disappear). Let’s just concentrate on the fact that the NCAA chooses to actively disprove its own pretensions of “student-athletes.” That formulation sort of loses something if you won’t even allow these kids to go to class, don’t you think? By the way, I endorse John Feinstein’s analysis, which I read after having already come to virtually the same conclusions. This decision is about one thing only: short-term profits for the NCAA and its water-carriers the athletic departments. The fans, players, and long-term good of the game? Are you kidding?

In other sports news, it seems that some of my brethren and sistern in the academic field are getting a little disgruntled that in an era of shrinking budgets, athletics departments don’t seem to be being asked to tighten their extra-large belts even a little bit. While it is true that the football and men’s basketball programs at some universities make money, athletic departments as a whole don’t. Indeed, there are precisely two major public universities in the country—Nebraska and LSU—in which the athletics departments receive no subsidies from their respective universities. So it is, for example, that the Faculty Senate at the University of Memphis has proposed that the university eliminate its $2 million underwriting of the Athletic Department (this measure would still leave untouched the $7+ million per year the department gets from student fees). The $7.7 million subsidy by the University of California at Berkeley is similarly under fire. All told, as described in this January article from USA Today, while the rest of us have been trying to find ways of cutting back, in athletics departments at the 99 public universities in the power conferences, subsidies from the general fund grew “about 20% in four years, from $685 million in 2005 to $826 million in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. At more than a third of those schools, the percentage of athletic department revenue coming from subsidies grew during the four-year period studied.” That would be an average of over $8.3 million per school per year. That's well over 100 faculty who could have been hired or retained, or more than 300 full-ride scholarships to students who, you know, have something to offer in the classroom.

It may or may not be true that successful, big-time, athletics programs lead to alumni giving and student satisfaction: the fact that it's Conventional Wisdom doesn't make it true. All I know is that a win over Harvard in my undergrad days was as much fun as a win over Mizzou in my grad school days. As for funding, well, according to the most recent figures in the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are ten institutions with an endowment of over $1 million per student: of these, precisely one, Stanford, is in a major athletic conference. Even when we eliminate the per-student component, we’re left with the simple fact that only four of the schools with the twelve largest university endowments, and only about 46% of all universities with $1 billion endowments, have big-time athletics, and several of those that do (Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Virginia…) aren’t perennial powers in any major sport. [Note: the tables are password-protected: if you don’t have a Chronicle subscription, you’re going to have to trust me on the numbers.] So I’m thinking that there isn’t exactly a one-to-one correlation between attracting donors and going to a BCS bowl game.

On the one hand, the faculty protests at Memphis and Berkeley and wherever else are more symbolic than pragmatic. No university president has the courage to suggest that their sainted football or basketball coach isn’t worth $1 million a year, or that a bunch of functional illiterates shouldn’t take up space in classrooms, lower the level of discussion, and generally be coddled and cooed over. N.B., I am fully aware that there are a great many people about whom the term “student athlete” isn’t an oxymoron. I’ve had them in my classes. But I’ve also had the others—the ones who think they’re entitled to a good grade in my class because they can catch a football well enough to start for a team that went 4-8 in Division I-AA. No, expecting anyone in a university administration or on a Board of Trustees to care more about real student achievement than about whether the team goes to the Petunia Bowl—that would be asking far too much. But maybe some good will come of the outcry, anyway: if nothing else, I suspect at least a few more people now know that it’s the universities who subsidize athletics, not the other way around.

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