College athletics budgets are out of whack

I'm a Duke fan, and I hope they win tonight's game, but my enthusiasm for the men's NCAA basketball tournament is dampened by the growing educational and financial separation between big-time college athletics and higher education.

Athletics budgets increased by 50 percent between 2004 and 2009 at universities with Division I-A athletics. Coaching salaries have soared, with some basketball and football coaches now earning more than $4 million a year, more than enough to fund an academic department with 25 faculty members and their support staff.

Universities spend the most money by far on their basketball and football programs. Yet football and basketball have the lowest graduation rates. Eight of the top 16 seeds in this year's men's basketball tournament graduated 50 percent or fewer of their African-American players.

What's needed is a national approach to help universities realign their athletics with their educational mission. Five ideas:

1 Modify the regulations for athletic scholarships so as to penalize programs with low graduation rates. Make all athletics scholarships four years in length. If a student on scholarship leaves for the pros or drops out after one year, require the university to wait three more years before reassigning the scholarship.

2 Provide an alternative path to the NBA and NFL for high school students who are not really interested in attending, much less graduating from, college. The NBA could create a league for players under 21, with one under-21 team attached to each NBA franchise, instead of continuing the "one and done" charade of bolting from universities after a single year. The NFL should take similar steps.

3 Tighten Title IX reporting requirements to include the hidden costs of intercollegiate athletics, such as subsidies from general university funds, the cost of maintaining athletics facilities and the debt payments on these facilities.

4 The federal government should tax college athletics programs in proportion to the total compensation packages they pay to their coaching staffs. Programs that pay coaches outsized compensation are in the entertainment business. The tax rate could vary from nothing for programs whose coaching salaries are in line with faculty salaries to 50 percent for those programs that pay their coaches, say, more than 20 times the average salary of a tenured faculty member. Coaches who insist on high salaries could pursue careers with professional teams.

5 Tax conferences that pay their commissioners excessive compensation. Conferences are tax-exempt organizations, but their educational mission can be hard to detect. They receive little scrutiny, and some pay commissioners outsized salaries. In 2006, Big Ten commissioner James Delany earned $2.6 million, nearly 1.5 percent of the conference revenue, large even by Wall Street standards.

I love the chaos of March Madness, but the growth we're seeing in college athletics is unsustainable and inconsistent with higher education. It's time for reform.

Richard Hain is a math professor at Duke.

College athletics budgets are out of whack 03/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 8:03pm]

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