Bracing for the Blitz

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: November 24,2003

News in September that Vanderbilt University Chancellor Gordon Gee had dissolved the school’s athletic department rippled throughout Division I-A colleges, bolstering concerns that the historic move signaled the beginning of a thorough reform of intercollegiate athletics. Big changes in college sports were already in the works. Boston University dropped its football program in 1997, and Swarthmore College in 2000. Five New England schools cut the number of athletes they accept, and Ivy League presidents reduced recruitment of athletes at their schools.

Next April, presidents of Division I-A schools will vote on a spate of reform issues aimed at scaling back the $3 billion-a-year annual industry, which include establishing a system that financially rewards teams that do well academically and punishes those doing poorly, increasing academic standards and limiting the number of hours each week athletes can spend on sports. Even though it is currently capped at 20 hours a week, that rule is only sporadically enforced.

Earlier this year, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) chief Myles Brand admitted that “change is in the air” and schools need to “turn down the volume.” So, how does the push to reform college athletics affect Mississippi Division I-A schools: Mississippi State University (MSU), the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and the University of Southern Mississippi (USM)?

“I’m not as optimistic about the NCAA proposals as I should be,” said Mississippi Institutions for Higher Learning commissioner David Potter.

MSU athletic director Larry Templeton called the NCAA proposals “window dressing.”

“Our mission is to graduate student athletes and I don’t think you have to be driven with incentives,” he said. “My biggest concern is the cost of tuition. The 33% increase in tuition in this state in the last three years is what’s putting the hurt on this athletic program, because we pay the same cost as anybody else for our athletes to go to school. Those aren’t paper scholarships, they’re real-dollar scholarships.”

The NCAA is also taking a stronger look at graduation rates for athletes, which is perceived to be lower than it actually is, said USM athletic director Richard Giannini.

“Our graduate rate for student athletes is 72% and the student body’s is 52%,” he said. “The football team’s is 75%, which puts us in the top 15% in the country.”

According to the NCAA, two-thirds of MSU’s student athletes graduated in the last six years. Ole Miss reported the lowest student athlete graduation rate: a four-year average of 59%, which is still higher than the general student body.

“I’m not in favor of rewarding schools on the basis of graduation records until we find a way to measure graduation fairly,” said Khayat. “For example, if my child came to Ole Miss on a football scholarship and decided after the first semester that he wanted to go to Delta State, and he graduated there with a perfect 4.0, he would count as not having graduated at Ole Miss and we would be 0 for 1. We need a way to accurately measure a student from the time he enters the school until he graduates, no matter which school.”

Southeastern Conference (SEC) associate commissioner Greg Sankey said the NCAA has considered that problem.

“We’ve discussed an accommodation for tracking the academic success of transfer students so that a student who transfers in and out of a university in good academic standard doesn’t count against the university,” he said.

The push for reform gained momentum last year after University of Oregon faculty senate president James Earl balked at the school’s $90-million plans to expand its football stadium. By early 2003, faculty senates at some 50 universities had jumped on the bandwagon, and the NCAA, college sports’ powerful marketing arm, pledged support of changes to narrow the gap between academics and athletics.

“Anytime you have a coach making $800,000 or $1 million, and a professor making $40,000 or $50,000, then there’s concern something isn’t right,” said Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat, who served as interim athletic director at the university in 1994. “Our faculty understands that market drives prices if you’re going to be competitive. Although I’m philosophically opposed to the high salaries, as is Coach (David) Cutcliffe, if you expect to have any sense of continuity in your program and attract a high caliber person to run it, then that’s just the way it is.”

Khayat, an Academic All-American who played football and baseball at Ole Miss and was an NFL Pro Bowler with the Washington Redskins, said the increased interest in de-emphasizing athletics has also been spurred by troubling scandals, such as the problems Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett and University of Alabama former head coach Mike Price have brought on themselves and their respective universities.

Khayat said people sometimes “sense that compromises have been made in expectations of academic performance.

“From time to time, you hear about scandals where someone takes an ACT for someone else, or exams or papers are done for someone, and you can begin to feel when things are getting out of balance,” he said.

The increasing levels of expenditures in college sports, even though self-generated, are alarming, said Khayat.

“Our athletic department budget has increased from $9 million or $10 million in 1995 to $26 million now,” he said.

Show us the money

For fiscal year 2004, MSU’s athletic budget is $23.2 million, a 1% increase from the 2003 budget. Ole Miss gets the heftiest chunk, with an athletic budget of $26.5, also a 1% increase over FY2003. USM, a Conference USA member, reported the biggest increase, nearly 16% over FY2003, for the smallest Mississippi Division I-A athletic budget of $12.8 million. One reason for the money gap: Of $9.3 million in foundation and athletic club giving, Ole Miss reported $4.4 million, compared to MSU’s $2.6 million and USM’s $2.3 million, according to IHL reports.

In the NCAA’s top-tier schools, athletic operating expenses increased 62% from 1996 to 2001, compared with a 39% increase in total university spending, according to an NCAA report released in August.

The two-year study also showed that 40% of the 117 Division I-A athletic programs made money in 2001. (After deducting state and school subsidies, only 6% reported a profit.) And nearly two-thirds of I-A football programs — the division moneymaker — showed a profit in 2001.

“In schools like ours, football and men’s basketball and baseball support the rest of the athletic programs,” said Giannini.

Schools with teams that make it to post-season play can add millions of dollars to the coffers, with top bowls paying up to $13 million each.

“When the basketball team goes to the Sweet 16, and the football team goes to a major bowl, we make a profit,” said Khayat. “But even without post-season play, it’s really important that people understand athletics here is self-supporting. Most people don’t get that.”

The study, which denied the existence of an “athletic arms race,” reported that spending extra money doesn’t necessarily translate into more wins.

“There is an arms race,” insisted Templeton. “However, if you look at the budget for MSU and Ole Miss together, we still don’t meet the average of the SEC schools, but we’re still able to stay competitive with fewer people who work harder.”

Do athletic departments wield too much clout?

“On a national scene, the amount of commercialization associated with big-time athletics has given some leverage to athletic
s to have more power than it should have,” said Potter.

When Gee announced the dissolution of Vanderbilt’s athletic department, he observed, “Athletic departments exist as separate, almost semi-autonomous fiefdoms within universities.”

Athletic departments can certainly bec

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