Intercollegiate athletics, most notably at the NCAA Division I level, is consistently described by coaches, fans, administrators and even the television networks as an industry striving and ultimately spending for “competitive equity.”  In all honesty I am not sure what that term means with regard to intercollegiate athletics.

Although there are professional leagues that attempt to keep teams fiscally similar by revenue sharing and salary caps, that model does not exist in college sports. In college athletics it is obvious that competitive equity does not exist in most sports and certainly save for the rare upset does not even exist in the marquee sports of football and men’s basketball.

There are haves and have nots in college athletics. This means “he who has the most toys usually wins. Whether you are a have or have not is typically determined by overall department budgets, how much revenue does football and men’s basketball generate, and ability to bring in external revenue through television, sponsorships, ticket sales, and fund raising.

Equity by Budget?

In my view to make college sports truly competitive it would make sense to separate college sports by competitive division as determined by an overall budget. For example schools with 80 million plus budgets and projections to meet that benchmark can be in one division; 50-80 million can be another division and so on. Numbers of scholarships, travel budgets, recruiting; championships and even revenue sharing can be discussed and regulated.

A system of relegation and promotion between divisions can be set up similar to European professional sports leagues based on being able to maintain that level of spending or even a desire to drop down for fiscal reasons. This could be a way to determine if an institution is truly ready to make the jump up a division rather than jumping for all the wrong reasons and justifications that will likely never be realized.

While this can make a whole lot of sense and be great for the fans it means it will likely not happen. Too bad but let’s talk about the reality of runaway costs in NCAA Division I athletics and the unintended consequences of increased spending.

Even though I have been a supporter of increased benefits for all college athletes, including monetary incentives, the potential consequences of the new cost of attendance (COA) stipend currently being made available to most athletes at NCAA Division I institutions are far reaching. The Drake Group (TDG), an organization of faculty, staff, and others concerned with academic integrity in intercollegiate athletics, a group of which I have been a long time member and am current President Elect,  has always supported more benefits for all college athletes given the time, effort, and marketing capital provided by the athlete to the institution. The Drake Group has been a staunch supporter of increased athlete benefits for its entire 15-plus year history, specifically with regard to educational protections such as academic disclosure and multi-year scholarships.

While TDG does not support turning college athletes into paid employees of an institution of higher learning, we do support college athletes being treated as and given the same freedoms as the general student body. This includes potentially increasing scholarship amounts to the cost of attendance level consistent with the institutional allowed amount found in many other scholarships at most institutions. However, TDG proposes one specific and important caveat, paying these new allowances should be predicated on the ability of the institution to cover all increased scholarship expenses without increasing institutional subsides to athletics or raising general student fees.

The Money is not Equal!

It may seem like most institutions are awash in money from ESPN , corporate sponsors, and ticket buyers, but most institutions are heavily subsidized from institutional operating expenses and mandatory student fees. Most athletics programs operate at a large and yearly increasing annual deficit. Many athletic programs in NCAA Division I are feeling pressured and desperate to maintain competitiveness by offering their athletes the COA out a fear they would somehow fall behind if they did not provide the stipend.

The Drake Group cautions institutions to beware of the unintended consequences to the institution, and particularly the expansion of use of the general student fee at a large percentage of Division I schools to fund the expanded scholarship and future debt burdens on the student.

The Best Players will always go to the Best Schools

Providing this COA stipend to try to remain equal with schools that have budgets 3-4 times higher and when you don’t have the money to pay for it can be a fait accompli. The old scholarship allowance of tuition, room, board, books and course related fees is still a fantastic financial aid package provided the educational promise is delivered; something that has been nebulous in the past.

Schools thinking they must do the COA allowance to remain competitive are only fooling themselves and adding the burden of increased student debt on the general student body. We argue that the best players will go to the best schools athletically regardless of the amount or even availability of the COA stipend. Schools in non-Power 5 conferences will basically get the same level of athlete and have not gained anything competitively on the higher budget institutions by offering the COA, but will have gained huge debt service amounts and placed more financial burden on the student body.

The Brand of Division I is not as Strong as Advertised

In other words, a Bowling Green or Ohio University will never be Ohio State, yet they are trying to play in the same sandbox where the outcome is a zero sum game of winning or losing. These institutions outside of the Power 5 conferences (commonly known as the Group of Five) are accepting of the athletic department being a loss leader and adding more crippling debt to the student body.

According to the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Sport, many NCAA institution’s athletic programs are funded almost exclusively by institutional subsidies and student fees; a consequence of not have greater access to television and sponsorship money available to the Power 5 schools. This includes amounts approaching almost $2000 per student FTE per academic year, primarily to fund a money losing operation. These are real costs to the student and their families, but we continually try to justify the fiscal mismanagement.

Research conducted by the Knight Commission and even the NCAA show very little, if any correlation to successful (read: competitively equitable) athletics contributing to greater application input, fund raising, marketing or even better academics and research.  Empirically, this research clearly demonstrates that an institution can run a fiscally responsible athletic program which is a part of, and not a part away, from the institution and still deliver the same benefits to the institution, alumni, and students. Adding another $4-8000 of unneeded cost to an already expensive education just to fund an athletic enterprise that is trying to be something it is not, can have far reaching debt and repayment issues for the general student.

The Front Porch Theory

If athletics is truly a “front porch” and the largest lens that a university is viewed from, the NCAA institutions need to realize that continued debt funding of these departments with costs continually increasing in a desperate, and frankly impossible race, to remain competitive will in itself essentially become another front porch, or more accurately a broken window. As costs increase and continue to get passed on to the primary consumer, the student; colleges and universities are in danger of prospective students voting with their checkbooks and finding lower cost and evermore available educational options. Then who will pay for the massive incurred debt and financial commitments that institutions will no longer be able to keep?

The drive for competitive equity needs to be reevaluated and institutions need to be who they are and not try to be what they never will be. People will still come to the games and the athletic department can be a robust and vibrant part of the campus while being fiscally responsible and not adding to the national problem of increased student debt.

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