I love sports at every level. I especially like inter-collegiate sports. I have been a president of NCAA schools for over 30 years, a Division III school and now a Division II school. I love to watch our students compete in the 19 sports we offer. Always have.
This is a terrific time of year for fans of college sports as March Madness takes center stage. People everywhere will complete brackets for fun or even fortune, as multibillionaire Warren Buffet and Quicken Loans offer $1 billion to anyone who fills out the perfect bracket. With odds of 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 to one, I don't think any of Warren's riches are at risk. What is at risk is the structure and long-term viability of NCAA Division I athletics as we know them.
Isolated scandals of all descriptions have marred intercollegiate athletics for as long as I remember: point shaving scandals in the 1950s and 1960s, athletes who remained eligible while never progressing towards degrees in the 1970s, and more recently the scandals at Penn State, Rutgers, UNC Chapel Hill and others. Indeed, problems with college sports prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to help establish the NCAA over 100 years ago. All the more contemporary problems tainted but hardly affected the popularity of the schools, teams and sports. And in each decade and in each instance, the NCAA, a governing body composed of representatives of the member colleges and universities, enacted rules in an effort to assure the abuses were not repeated.
But big money, national fame and institutional pride too often overwhelm the best intentions of educators. A coach or booster bends and occasionally breaks the rules to land that star player, the game changer, even if, as in basketball, he might be "one and done" -- on to the pros after one year in school. Without him there may be no trip to the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four, no national acclaim for the coach and university, no million-dollar-plus annual coach's salary, no increase in athletic fund donations. But that is the least of my worries for Division I. Rule breakers get caught most of the time and the NCAA processes, however imperfect, holds them accountable. My concern is that the NCAA may soon be a victim of its own successes and excesses.
In 1979 the Big East Athletic Conference formed. Colleges and universities from Washington to Boston, from Philadelphia to New York City to Syracuse formed a regional league. Some were large: Syracuse and University of Connecticut. Some were smaller: Providence and Seton Hall. That same year a new cable TV station started and the Big East and ESPN joined forces. Basketball fans across the nation would soon watch Big East basketball games a couple of times a week. For a while, they were the only games on weeknight television, and they were good. Everyone prospered.
But 24/7 sports coverage required more games. ESPN added more NCAA Division I conferences and more sports. Saturday football games soon spread from noon to midnight and to Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. More viewers, more sponsor money, and bigger league contracts followed. Basketball grew, but football grew much bigger.
Cable TV and national networks needed content, bidding ensued. TV contracts with Division I conferences grew bigger and bigger. More 24/7 sports media entered the competition. The more teams win, the more they appear on television, and more revenue then flows to their conferences and programs (by the way, except for the NCAA Division I Basketball Championship, the NCAA gets none of this revenue). The more TV exposure, the easier it becomes to recruit athletes. Soon schools will have their own contracts or channels. Oh, they already do.
A successful football program generates three times the revenue of a successful basketball program. So conferences realigned around media markets (a great strength of the Big East in its day) for football. Huge media contracts resulted. Syracuse is now in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Maryland and Rutgers are headed to the Big Ten (which really is the Big 14 now). The Big East is on the verge of being the "Big Least." TV money made them. TV money broke them. Now there are five "super conferences" in Division I. They command the really big money and they want "more autonomy" within the NCAA and will soon have it.
TV money made March Madness what it is today too. We fill out our brackets and root for some underdog David to slay Goliath. And they are Davids. Athletic budgets in Division I range from $150,000,000 a year for the Goliaths down to $5,000,000. Goliath gets bigger and David gets smaller.
But the Davids far outnumber the Goliaths. Only 15 or so programs of the approximately 330 in Division I turn a "profit." For the rest, athletics is an expense born largely by student tuition and fees. Many of the smaller Division I schools, our Davids, are under greater and greater financial distress. Their enrollments and net tuition are declining. Academic and administrative budgets are being cut; faculty and staff are retrenched. Less visible sports are squeezed or eliminated. But dreams of being David in March before the eyes of an entire nation keep the money flowing to basketball programs and in the fall, if they have it, maybe football too.
Yet the public perception of the economics of collegiate sports is based almost solely on the teams in the five super conferences: the SEC, the Big Ten, the PAC 10, the ACC and Big 12. All the big TV and other media revenues, ticket sales, media attention and multi-million dollar coaches' salaries reside there. One reason we love March Madness is a David generally emerges each year: a Butler, VCU or a Florida Gulf Coast, and we witness David battle Goliath again. Goliath always wins in the Final Four. But, the Goliaths now demand that their needs and financial interests not be constrained by a membership composed mostly of Davids.
All the money generated by the five "mega" conferences endangers the future of college sports as we know them. ESPN recently produced a show Requiem for the Big East. The Big East is not dead yet, but it is near irrelevant.
Many of the talking heads of 24/7 sports media (have you counted the number of all sports channels today?) call for players to receive cash stipends or be paid. They argue coaches earn millions and so do the schools so the kids who get a free education, housing, meals, books and other benefits that all the other students pay dearly for, should be paid. Players from Northwestern University petitioned to be recognized as a union by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They argued that they are employees of the university and have a right to unionize. According to CNN, during the NLRB hearing, former Northwestern Quarterback Kain Colter testified that the "number one complaint by graduating seniors on the team was that football's rigorous schedule kept them from reaching their academic potential." As a university president, this statement breaks my heart.
They argue for what they perceive as their fair share of the riches accruing to others for their efforts. How do the Davids -- the "have nots" who struggle to sustain their athletic spending, and already lose millions on their programs -- add "stipends" above the value of a free education for their athletes? Can David compete if Goliath pays extra? Should they under any circumstances? Will there still be Davids in this new "more autonomous," mega conference world?
As an NCAA Division II institution, Saint Leo University offers athletic and academic scholarships. But we harbor no illusions of athletic profits, fame or fortune here. Instead, athletics are another educational expense, much like offering music, theatre, arts, debate and other extra-curricular activities for students to learn, express their talents, and experience the reality of performing in the public's eye. Our graduates are not here to become professional athletes or musicians. It happens sometimes, but we are not preparing them for that. We teach them self-discipline, goal setting, the value of hard work, teamwork, communication, mental toughness, and values through athletics, leadership of student clubs, and the arts. They learn to perform and compete as best they can, to win and to lose with humility, to respect themselves, their coaches, teammates, opponents and officials in order to be better businessmen, teachers, nurses and citizens.
Last year, Saint Leo University senior point guard Marcus Ruh's reward for his hard work on the court and in the classroom was his selection as the 2012-2013 Capital One Academic All-American of the Year. Shooting 48.9 percent from three-point range is impressive. But the statistic that makes me proudest to call Marcus a Saint Leo Lion is his perfect 4.0 grade point average. Marcus led by his example, was active in community service, and liked by everyone. He was just another student who happened to play basketball.
Without fielding a basketball team, Marcus may have never considered attending Saint Leo, and we all would have missed out on such a valuable member of our university community. Marcus deserved the opportunities to develop and demonstrate all his gifts: athletic, academic, leadership and service.
Academics and athletics are not inherently at odds. In fact, the combination of the two works quite well together. A university degree coupled with increased exposure to teamwork and strong competition creates a very well prepared graduate.
Combining academics and athletics only fails when the addition of obscene amounts of money distorts the relationship. When money destroys natural rivalries, when students are forced travel a thousand miles to compete on a Wednesday night and miss three days of class, when the media decides when games are played, we've lost our way.
After the national championship game on April 8, March Madness will be in the rear view mirror for another year. Unfortunately, the real madness of Division I programs will continue. The TV season never ends. With ESPN's multiple channels and CBS, NBC and Fox joining the 24/7 sports media rush, the circus is now 10 rings or more. The need for content never ends. I know of one small college that joined Division I believing their scores in basketball streaming across the bottom of the screen was going to make them "somebody." It may make them bankrupt, educationally and financially. Others may soon be too.
The lessons of the Big East and ESPN are instructive. Media made them big, and the same media essentially destroyed them.
Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr. is president of Saint Leo University and a member of the NCAA Division II President's Council.