Thursday, January 17, 2013

Financial Inequality, College Sport, and Title IX: Reflections on the NCAA Scholarly Colloquium

I'm just back from the NCAA Convention, where I attended the Scholarly Colloquium for the first time in my capacity as a member of the board charged with running the Convention's annual academic conference.  As it turns out, that first time will also be my last.  On the eve of the Colloquium, NCAA officials announced that it was discontinuing support for the Colloquium, as well as the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, which is also put out by our board.  Some have speculated that this decision was not about financial considerations and scholarly "impact," but more about the NCAA's unwillingness to subsidize scholarly criticism of the college sport enterprise (see, e.g., here or here).  A not entirely unreasonable point of view, I guess, though it's certainly disappointing that the NCAA and its members will miss the opportunity going forward to engage in constructive, critical dialog within the framework of the Convention.  

This year's Colloquium is a case in point.  Several panels of scholars, not to mention a few university presidents, provided various perspectives on the Colloquium theme, Financial Inequality in College Sport. From these presentations, I came away with a much clearer picture of the economics of college sport, and what economic disparities within sport mean for student-athletes and other students.  For example, while it wasn't news to me that Division I schools outspend  Division II schools, or that within Division I, FBS institutions outspend their FCS counterparts by exponential sums, I was surprised to see the economic disparities even within conferences of similarly-situated schools.  In the Big Ten Conference, for example, Ohio State spends $132 million on athletics, or  2.7 times as much as the lowest-spending member of that same conference.  No wonder there's an arms race of spending.  Schools with an economic advantage can shore up that advantage by hiring an army of support staff (including, as we heard in one example, a "sleep consultant" to make sure the football team would be well-rested despite traveling across two time zones to the site of a bowl game) and other amenities.  Perhaps more importantly, they can afford to purchase football wins against schools from weaker conferences and the FCS subdivision, in order to ensure eligibility to the revenue-generating bowl games.  (Oklahoma State's 84-0 win over Savannah State was a much discussed example.) These kinds of investments, of course, drive up spending in the conference overall, who have little change of recouping their exorbitant investment unless they hang in there with the big spenders.

While this year's Colloquium panels did not include a specific focus on Title IX (though past year's Colloquiums have done so, see, e.g.), they certainly helped contextualize the economic situation in which Title IX decisions must take place.  The presentations underscored for me the relationship between the financial inequality among schools and the financial inequality within schools, since the arms race spending, driven by economic pressure to keep up with big spenders, results in more resources allocated to the sports with revenue potential, which are, primarily, two men's sports -- football and basketball.  When a school like Colorado State goes in the hole to build a new football stadium, this not only diverts money toward the football program, but creates economic pressure to keep its football team viable for as long as the debt on the stadium exists.  It sets a men's sport as a permanent priority, driving a wedge of perpetual inequality between one (men's) sport and the rest.  For these reasons, I agreed with a number of Colloquium presenters who called on the NCAA to press Congress for the authority to more tightly control athletics spending.  (Presently, antitrust laws would prohibit the NCAA for doing so, which is why Congress needs to get involved).  Financial and academic integrity were the primary reasons for this proposed reform, but gender equity goes on the list as well. 

Whether or not the NCAA agrees with the content of this year's Colloquium, one thing is clear: the conversation about college athletics reform must continue.  I'm grateful for the past six years in which the NCAA has supported the Scholarly Colloquium.  Now it's time to look for new opportunities to promote academic discourse on college sports.