College sports embraced reckless greed; with the coronavirus crisis, the bill has come due

By SALLY JENKINS | The Washington Post | Published: August 7, 2020

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The pandemic has subjected the NCAA to radiographical exposure. Every crooked vertebrae of the system is on glowing fluorescent display. It's similar to the sensation when you view an X-ray that shows your cat swallowed your favorite fountain pen. You can see all the things that don't belong in the guts of a university.

The coronavirus crisis is an incredible diagnostic tool. The excesses have never been so sharply delineated: The $50 million stadium upgrades, the indoor waterfalls, the ballooning salaries, the locker rooms designed like first-class luxury airliner cabins now look like protruding, tumorous distortions, worthy of recoil and disgust. Institutions have laid themselves bare, with their desperate insistence on trying to make unpaid kids play football in a viral outbreak simply to meet their overextended bills.

"Schools have spent money recklessly for years," says attorney Tim Nevius, a former NCAA investigator who is now an advocate for athletes. "Now they're in a position where if the season doesn't go forward, they're on the hook for millions. . . . There has just been an extraordinary amount of spending on things that have very little resemblance to a university's mission to educate and develop people."

Understand this: These schools don't have a money problem. They have a shopping addiction. From 2004 to 2018, NCAA revenue exploded from $3 billion to $14 billion thanks largely to media rights, licensing, and sponsorship deals. Yet some schools are so financially distressed that a single canceled football season could be catastrophic. Stanford has cut 11 sports, and Wisconsin informed donors that it could face a $100 million shortfall. Where'd the money go? The answer is, to compulsive spending and gross misallocation. Hundreds of millions disappeared into the pockets of deputy assistant associate athletic directors for administration; conference commissioners for the commission of commissions; and Nick Saban's corporate-welfare army of "football analysts."

The rest went into buildings that look like a Kardashian's closet. Clemson's arcade of a football complex includes miniature golf, bowling, laser tag and a movie theater.

"This is a multibillion-dollar sports entertainment industry embedded in our higher education system," Nevius says.

You can see what the priorities are. Book learning and bookkeeping aren't among them.

The party is over, obviously. A perfect storm has overtaken an NCAA structure that was rickety to begin with and is knocking it down, exposing all the rotten innards. "This is a crazy system we've had, that never really worked economically for schools, that got more and more commercialized over time, and it's ripe for change," says economist Andrew Zimbalist. "You have all these commercial enterprises called athletic departments that did not face normal marketplace discipline, because there is nobody, not you or I, who owns stock in the Notre Dame or Michigan football team."

The accounting is finally here. The pandemic and its accompanying contraction is a painful and uncertain experience all across the country. But one good thing has come of it: It has tilted some leverage to athletes, on whom so many overpaid livings depend. Now they are asking: Why should we play for free and put our health at risk just so a bunch of paper pushers can walk off with more millions?

An extraordinary shift is coming, like it or not. No one yet knows what the college landscape will look like post-pandemic. But it's time to recognize the stark reality that there is a major labor industry improperly buried in the stomachs of universities. It has to either be removed, or better absorbed.

If athletic departments are going to remain and survive on campuses, the NCAA must become a more organic system that equitably recompenses athletes for their risk, and prioritizes the well-being of the people who are doing the sweating over those in suits. Pac-12 players are threatening to sit out if they don't receive a 50 percent revenue split and health benefits. It's a good road map.

Does that come with consequences? Of course — starting with tax consequences. There would be redistribution and reallocation implications, hard ones, for everybody. But those are coming, like it or not, in one form or another. The idea that smaller sports have to be killed wholesale is nonsense. Before athletic directors make that determination, how about they start by paring away all of the stupendous waste and bureaucratic welfare, and see what's left?

What does this mean? It means restoring a pay-as-you-go ethic instead of waiting for the big bowl game check to erase the red ink. It means clawing back the salaries of grossly overpaid failed-upwards administrators, such as Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott's $5 million a year compensation for pure incompetence, and redeploying moneys to sports under threat. It means Alabama carrying just one "football analyst" instead of 13. It means cutting Dabo Swinney's $9 million salary to $2 million and doing the same to all the other coaches in the Power Five conferences, whose collective pay currently amounts to a staggering $1.2 billion.

It means realignment to reduce ludicrous travel expenses, and no more putting players in hotels before home games. It means reducing the number of football scholarships from a needlessly large 85 to a more reasonable 70. It means not every Division I men's basketball player gets to spend Thanksgiving in Caribbean resorts.

It means hiring college administrators who won't honcho around, but who will do their actual assigned jobs, which is to run educational nonprofits with low overhead that spread merit-based scholarships to as many deserving kids as possible, in as many sports as possible. It means finding administrators who will concede that multi-sport departments can be run on a mere $50 million instead of $150 million.

Before anything else, NCAA schools have to get their spending and their addiction to debt under control. No large measures, whether cutting sports or revenue-sharing with athletes, can be even discussed until excess is curbed and reason restored. Not until then can anyone begin to see a fairer future for college sports. The alternative is unsustainable and will lead to total collapse.

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