New Study Unearths Spending Inequities Between Athletics and Academics

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 17th, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The growing monetary influence of college sports is one of today’s mostly hotly-debated topics. Much of the discussion surrounds the NCAA, and the allegedly outdated and misguided legislation that comprises its controversial amateurism ideal and restricts student athletes from reaping the financial benefits of their athletic achievements. There is a firestorm of protest brewing in that realm, and we could soon reach a tipping point with the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit. In fact, NCAA boss Mark Emmert is hoping to chip away at the organization’s shield against compensation for student-athletes by pushing through a stipend payment  – in essence, extra funds on top of grant in aid scholarships – within the next couple of years. And you count on at least a few more messy player ineligibility cases surfacing over that same span, which, inevitably, will ramp up the chorus of scrutiny on the folks in Indianapolis. Ripping the NCAA has become a seasonal exercise – the national media not only relishes the opportunity to poke holes in the organization’s moral mission. It amplifies miniscule and often nebulous procedural issues into long-winded screeds on student-athlete exploitation and “unfair” profiting off unpaid undergraduates.

Emmert Is Trying To Push Through A Stipend For Student-Athletes

That’s the stuff you hear about all the time. What may be less familiar – and there’s good reason for this – is the growing chasm between schools’ athletic and academic financial priorities. In the past decade, as the scramble for favorable television rights arrangements sent programs in a rabid conference-hopping scramble, coaches salaries were sent skyrocketing out of control (particularly in football) and athletic staffs multiplied, the dividing line between “athletic” and “academic” priorities on college campuses has reached an uncomfortable balance. The goal of maintaining academic standards while trying to keep up in the financial arms race that underlies today’s intercollegiate sports world has skewed university spending balances towards athletics.

This is nothing new. But thanks to a comprehensive study at American Institutes for Research in conjunction with the project reform Knight Commission on intercollegiate athletics, we now have a clearer picture on the specifics of how funds are allocated between academic and athletic resources. To no great surprise, our foremost suspicions are correct. Athletes are indeed, far greater financial responsibilities than students for universities. How much greater? According to the  study, universities are spending, on average, anywhere between six-to-12 times more on athletes than non-athletes. In dollars, the disparity is as follows (on average): $164,000 per athlete to $13,390 per student.

This is nothing to ignore. College sports have grown into a prestigious financial enterprise, particularly in the SEC, where college football lords over rabid fan bases in a region lacking in professional alternatives and where, according to the study, member institutions boast the largest average disparity in academic-athletic spending. Some of the nation’s biggest athletic programs have long been viewed as lucrative franchises, seemingly separate entities from the academic institutions that house them. Only now, the rampant spending imbalance serves to harden that demarcation. What’s alarming is that the athletic spending rose twice as fast as academic spending between 2005 and 2010, which means this trend – though certainly worrisome in the past – is just now starting to snowball into something serious. The study concludes with a scathing appraisal of the future of college athletics: since most athletic departments are not self-funded, and more often than not universities are subsidizing athletic programs (and not the other way around), schools may well be better off severing ties with their athletic programs and refocusing their remaining resources towards academic ends.

The numbers paint a gruesome portrait of overfunded sports entities dwarfing their academic counterparts and robbing universities of useful financial resources. For some, that may be the case. Maybe this whole athletics thing – the thousands of passionate fans pouring their souls and precious weekends into supporting their favorite teams, the wealthy boosters that help not only athletic teams but academic interests, the centuries-old tradition of inter-school competition – is on the verge of disappearing altogether. That’s an extreme case, and it probably won’t happen in our lifetimes — or maybe ever.

The fact remains that major athletic programs have grown into financial monoliths. This model works for some universities – the Alabamas, Texases, and Ohio States of the world. But for those struggling to keep up, the smaller programs vying for success in power conferences, using more and more university funds for athletic improvement is a costly endeavor. Limiting academic resources for athletic purposes is difficult balance, and as the costs of maintaining competitive programs continues to rise, the strain on the academic side will only grow more severe. These trends, eye-popping as they are, will not slow down. At the rate we are going athletic programs will eat up even larger chunks of university funds, meaning the gap in per-head allocation of funds between students and athletes will predictably widen.

In many ways, this is a numerical confirmation of what we already knew to be true about today’s intercollegiate athletic landscape. The notion that athletic integrity, or conferences banding together like-minded academic institutions, has any real clout in athletic programs’ decisions these days is trite and myopic. If conference realignment taught us nothing else, it is that money, not academics, drives the bus in major college athletics. This sweeping study provides more proof to that end.

But before working up a lather about the impending doom of your favorite college sports team, keep in mind that the rising costs of athletic programs are a serious problem, but they are not – as this report may lead you to believe – unsolvable. Paradigms can be altered. Rules can be changed. Conventions can and will be broken. The current structure of college sports, long resistant to even minor tweaks, is under attack like never before (from government officials to weighty class-action lawsuits); change is possible if inevitable. My most candid judgment of the situation is that the landscape will adapt, and athletics and academics officials, perhaps in conjunction with the NCAA, will work to find a healthier balance.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site and a freelance contributor to

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