Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Myths of Institutions Dropping Sports, and a Suggestion; More on NCAA Exempt Events

One story that I think most people noticed in Monday’s paper was the announcement that Northeastern University is dropping football after 87 years. It is always sad—very sad—when these things occur, when players who have given heart-and-soul, regardless of the team’s record, are told they no longer have a team to play for anymore.

In recent years, schools have dropped sports because of economic pressures all over the country. In fact, another Boston school—Boston University—dropped football several years ago. The day will come—mark my words—when a Division 1-A school has to drop football and then it will be a huge national story.

Whenever something like this happens, two of the great myths of American life come into play: the first is that football is a money-making venture for many colleges. It is not. A handful of schools—perhaps 30 to 35—make money, some of them very big money playing football. Most Division 1-A schools struggle to break even because the scholarship costs are so huge and because for all the gurgling about being ‘bowl eligible,’ very few teams make money and most LOSE money going to second-tier bowl games. The payout doesn’t balance the costs of travel for the team, band and cheerleaders not to mention that all those bowls require every school to buy a certain number of tickets—many of which frequently go untouched by the team’s fans and alumni.

That’s myth number one. Myth number two is far more dangerous: The reason for teams being disbanded is Title IX. Every time a men’s team is dropped at a school—swimming has been nailed as much as any sport so I’m very aware of this trend—people start saying this is all the fault of Title IX. I heard it again yesterday when the Northeastern story came up on the radio: that damn Title IX went and did it again.

No, it didn’t. In most cases when schools kill off minor sports it is because they are spending so much money on a non-money-making football program that something has to go. Occasionally it is about compliance numbers but if a school is in the black financially it can ADD a women’s program to be in compliance rather than drop a men’s program. Most schools that give out 85 scholarships to compete in Division 1-A or 63 to compete in Division 1-AA are bleeding money.

Here’s what should change: the number of allowable football scholarships. Why in the world do 1-A schools need 85 scholarships? The answer is simple: to allow coaches to cover up their recruiting mistakes. That’s why you’re allowed to sign up to 25 players in a year. Do the math - 25x5 (most big schools redshirt some, most or all of their freshmen) equals 125. You can’t have more than 85 scholarships in play at any one time. Even if you account for natural attrition through injuries, kids deciding not to play or transferring because they want to play more, that still leaves a bunch of kids who need to be run off every year.

Remember, an NCAA scholarship is a ONE year commitment. It’s ironic with all the hand-wringing that goes on about athletes walking out on their ‘commitment,’ early to turn pro, that no one ever says anything about the fact that a coach can pull a kid’s scholarship at the end of any school year—without a reason. Usually it is because the kid isn’t as good as he was supposed to be when he was being recruited. And, more often than not, coaches aren’t dumb enough to say to a kid: “I’m pulling your scholarship, get out.” There’s too much potential bad publicity in that. So, they tell the kid he’s not likely to play, that he’s called a coach at another school and he has him lined up for a soft landing someplace else. Most kids want to play: if they get the message that isn’t going to happen, they leave willingly without making a federal case out of their scholarship being pulled.

Football doesn’t need 85 scholarships at the 1-A level or 63 at the 1-AA level. The numbers should be more like 60 and 40—maximum. Imagine how much money that would save schools that could be used on non-revenue sports for men and women and on the facilities schools constantly claim they don’t have. Northeastern Athletic Director Peter Robey claimed it was an inability to pay for better facilities that drove his decision to drop the football team. If a scholarship at Northeastern costs $30,000 a year—probably a conservative number—and the school could pay for 23 fewer scholarships each year and still compete with it’s D-1AA brethren, that would be a savings of about $700,000 a year—minimum. That’s a pretty good start, no?

Title IX remains one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed. Is it perfect? No. For example, the notion that the Maryland women’s basketball team should have the exact same facilities as the men’s basketball team is foolish: the men’s team, for all intents and purposes, funds the women’s team which—in spite of great recent success—costs about $3 million a year to operate.

That said, Title IX has done FAR more good than bad. It has changed the way girls growing up in this country look at the world. My daughter Brigid is a perfect example. She plays golf and tennis, swims and was on her volleyball team and is trying out for the fifth-sixth grade basketball team this week. Prior to 1973 few if any of those opportunities existed for her. She could have been a cheerleader and that was about it.

In fact, it was Brigid who pointed out a flaw to me in my most recent kids mystery, “Change-Up,” which is set at The World Series. On a number of occasions during the book people express amazement that the female protagonist, 14-year-old Susan Carol Anderson, knows as much as she does about sports.

Brigid, who just turned 12 and has been smarter than me since she was about two, said to me one day: “You know dad you shouldn’t say all the time that it’s so amazing that Susan Carol knows sports. I know in your day (I love that phrase) girls didn’t do sports very much but now we ALL do sports.”

She’s right of course. And that’s a very good thing at all levels. So when a football team goes away or a swimming team or a wrestling team disappears, let’s not point the finger at Title IX. There may be the occasional case where it has something to do with the end of a team—though NEVER football, that’s just about costs being out of control—but the good that it has done FAR outweighs any bad.

Tell the NCAA to bring football spending under control a little bit. That would do a lot more good than complaining about the existence of a women’s field hockey team.


Just in case you missed it, Texas played Iowa in Kansas City last night in another of those exempt events with about 14 corporate names on it. Iowa was there even though it LOST in the so-called tournament to Duquesne. Like with the Coaches vs. Cancer event in New York, the “semi-finalists,” were pre-determined by the group running the event and by TV. (Like the world is dying to see Iowa play, right?)

There are a couple of things that really bother me about this in addition to the fraudulent nature of it all. First, the National Association of Basketball Coaches is one of the sponsors (and I would guess beneficiaries) of both the New York and Kansas City events. How can the NABC sanction a so-called competition in which a loser advances and a winner does not? The coaches should be ashamed. For the record, I dropped a note last week to Jim Haney, the executive director of the NABC asking him if he could tell me how much money had actually been turned over to cancer research groups the past few years by the Coaches vs. Cancer event. I’m still waiting for a response.

The other factor in this is that Duquesne is a terrific story. Ron Everhart took over a program in turmoil four years ago and then the entire school had to deal with the shootings two years that involved several players. Everhart got Duquesne to the NIT last year—it’s first postseason appearance in forever—and appears to have a very solid team this year. But heck, what does that matter? Iowa is in The Big Ten.

This smacks of the BCS—and that’s no compliment.


Jamie said...

Your buddy TK has repeated Myth #2 on his radio show a number of times since returning to the air this year.

Anonymous said...

I know studies and reports can show you anything you want, but have there been any to determine outside of revenues/expenses, what kind of impact that athletics, and in particular football basketball or any other sport, has on total fundraising for a school? Is the impact different for Amherst vs. Carnegie Mellon vs. Duke?

JimintheCuse said...

Love the follow-up on the 'tournaments' going on around the country currently. Most of the sporting world just takes these for granted when you slap the word 'cancer' on something, funds are being alocated for a good cause. I'll be interested to see the numbers on the Coaches Vs. Cancer donations, if and when Mr. Haney responds to your query.

charles pierce said...

Hey John ---
"I would like a great lake of ale for the King of Kings."
-- The Prayer of St. Brigid, Patron of Ireland.

Dana King said...

Your comments about the basketball tournaments points out what I have thought for years is a myth: Americans love the underdog. Bull. If so, TV would have been delighted to have Duquesne on. How else can the Yankees' sustained popularity be explained? They haven't been underdogs on 9o years.

Several of your recent blogs have done eloquent work in pointing out why I watch very little college sports anymore. I've known about the occasional corruption for years, but I can't overlook the systemic dishonesty anymore.

thedean said...

If it gets your name in the paper, and it does, the school should write sports losses off as advertising expense. I have a kid in college and what they charge for an "activity fee" is outrageous. Sports is an activity at the school, try to pry some of that money out of the university. Lots of luck. Some of these administrators make the BCS look like choir boys!!!!

Anonymous said...

I always have wondered if Brigid would earn a music scholarship from her drum playing. After all, she's already performed in front of millions on the Rome show. :)


Bennettar said...

The economics of sports seems somehow disconnected with the recession that is present in our country today. Every Saturday, college football stadiums are filled to the brim with paying customers. It is odd to hear of a football program disbanding due to funding issues (I realize Northeastern probably doesn't pull in 100k fans each week, but humor me). Reducing the number of scholarships seems viable but I also wonder if some form of revenue sharing would keep schools more diligent in their spending.

@Rich - Nice reference. That sound byte on the Rome show is a classic.

Vince Spence said...

Do you honesty believe reducing scholarships will save the universities about $40k per year per scholarship? I think you using a diminished return type formula.

I could make a better case where it costs virtually nothing above books, meals and the room they sleep in...

Mr. X said...


As I parked in the lot for daycare to pickup my son, Andy Pollin was teasing your appearance on DarkHeart's radio station. I was disappointed I would miss it, but c'est la vie. We got back to the car just in time to hear DarkHeart sign off instead of you.

Was it coincidence that Danny called in to the radio station he owns to cut you off in prime commuter drive time? I think not.

I'm glad I missed his Palinesque "well wishes" about a man whose jockstrap he'd barely be worthy to wash.

I thought the fix was in to nix your comments on AM980 today, which likely might have compared the owners' characters of local professional sports teams, but was pleased to hear you made it on air in the 6pm hour.

God speed you Abe.

Anonymous said...

Vince - you need to do your research on this one. While, to outsiders, it looks as though you can just add kids to classes and not really transfer money or pay for it, athletic directors and coaches truly have to budget it, where the dollars are paid to the University for those students-athletes. While there is no internal discrepancy for private schools, some state schools have different laws/regulations as others as to how athletic scholarships are treated ----- some systems treat them ALL as in-state students, some have to treat out of state as out of state ---- but the fact is that actual money is paid to the universities for those students-ahtletes.

So, to the point, it DOES cost money. Its not 'virtually nothing' other than books, meals and the room they sleep in.....it costs cash.

Gunnar said...

This idea of a so called competition, with the loser advancing if it is a well known school is terrible. They should not be allowed to use the word tournament in the name. They should be called "Television Exhibitions".