Kentucky Sports: Should Academics and Athletics be Separated?

Bill Maloney, a professor of Engineering at the University of Kentucky, has an opinion piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader today that I think deserves some serious attention and discussion.

The gist of Professor Maloney's article is that athletics at major universities, particularly football and basketball, have become the "minor leagues" for professional sports.

It is time to face up to the fact that Division 1 football and basketball programs have developed into the minor leagues for the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. However, unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA are unwilling to underwrite the costs of developing and operating these minor leagues.

Of course, we have had this conversation already at A Sea of Blue, and Maloney is pretty much correct in his assessment.  It didn't take the recent draft of four undergraduates from the University of Kentucky into the NBA to make this point, it is a point that many have made over and over again.

Maloney's question, though, is what (if anything) should be done about it, and in particular, should academics and athletics be separated?

Presumably, what Maloney means is to remove the requirement that athletes attend college at all, and are simply allowed to play as amateurs without attending the university.  I can think of no other meaningful way to accomplish this "divorce," as he puts it.

Professor Maloney gives us a litany of reasons that the current system is problematic, most of which are familiar to readers of A Sea of Blue and other sports websites -- one-and-dones making a mockery of academics, high coaching salaries, low eligibility requirements, counting an FCS football game as a way to make money.  These complaints are as familiar to readers of this blog and others as our own back yards, and require little in the way of further exposition.

However, Maloney makes a couple of complaints that have not often been made, and would seem to deserve further analysis.  First is this one:

Only a small proportion of the 120 major college programs breaks even or makes a profit.

Indeed, this seems to be true true.  From the latest NCAA revenues and expenditures report, which includes data from 2004/05/06:

The median Negative net generated revenue moved from $5,902,000 in 2004 to $5,565,000 in 2005 and $7,265,000 in 2006 – all representing expenses in excess of generated revenues. Thus, losses continue to grow. (2.3)

...

A total of 19 FBS athletics programs reported positive net generated revenues in 2006, up from 18 in 2004 and 2005. (3.5)

19 out of 325 (5.8%) 119 (15.9%) of all FBS programs turned an athletics profit in 2006.  The question that leaps to mind here is, "Then why do they continue to maintain programs that cost the universities money?"

The answer, of course, is that for the most part, these programs are not losing money.  In Economics of college sports
 By John Fizel, Rodney D. Fort, Brian Goff (2004) takes a look at the two in-depth studies that had been done at the time of Utah State University and Western Kentucky University.  What he discovered is:

  • Colleges often value their scholarships at full "list price," rather than what they actually cost the university;
  • Colleges attribute athletics produced revenue to non-athletic accounts, such as merchandise sales, parking, and related revenues;
  • Attributing athletics-produced expenses to non-athletic accounts (custodial services, etc.).

All these variations in accounting procedures had a substantial impact on the actual athletics revenue.  In the Utah State case, instead of a $700,000 loss, they actually produced a $360,000 profit.  In Western's case, there was an actual loss there, although it turned out to be $330,000 instead of $1,200,000.

In the final analysis, Goff reports on an adjusted analysis based on some assumptions gleaned by several scholarly works.  The adjustment produced a conclusion that only approximately 10% of 109 schools evaluated by Professor Richard G. Sheehan of the University of Notre Dame actually lost money on athletics.

It is likely most of us have long suspected that this is the case.  As so often happens, profit and loss is very much dependent upon where you put the money, and it should be obvious to all of us if it apparently isn't to the general public.  It makes no sense to spend millions of net dollars in a non-academic, money-losing endeavor, even if you are a public university.

Professor Maloney continues thus:

In pursuit of athletic success, many schools are admitting individuals who are socially unqualified. The number of college athletes arrested for burglary, assault, robbery and rape appears to increase each year.

I find this the most troubling assertion of all.  As far as I know, there are no "social qualifications" for admission to a university, and it is worrisome for Maloney to suggest there should be one.  While it is certainly fair that universities should insist on a certain level of character before offering a player a scholarship, one has to worry about including a "social qualification" in sports and not in the general student population.

When a scholarship student who is not an athlete commits a crime, nobody blames the university, or even takes notice of his status.  Yet somehow, Maloney's assertion seems to be that athletes should be subjected to a higher level of  scrutiny before being admitted under scholarship. It appears to me that Maloney is concerned about the profile of student athletes with the press as it relates to criminal behavior rather than anything else.

This boils down to a simple issue of fairness, and the allegations of bad behavior most often occur in the lower economic strata of scholarship student athletes.  However, separating athletics from academics will neither solve this problem, nor the problem of the likely federal issue that would arise from a "character test" that many could credibly claim was directed at the economically or socially disadvantaged.

I find myself in profound disagreement with this point.

In summary, I find Maloney's arguments on this subject unconvincing, to the extent he actually makes an argument.  He mostly prepared a laundry list of things he perceives as detrimental to the university academics, but what it winds up looking like is the typical missive of the academic in rejecting the place of college athletics at the core of university life. 

I appreciate the professor's efforts, though, because I actually believe him to be sincere, and I would like to extend him an offer of space on A Sea of Blue should he want to more completely express his position.  It is very difficult to do so in the small space accorded to guest op-eds in the newspaper, and I accept that some of my misgivings may be unfairly caused by the lack of his ability to expound on his points sufficiently.

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