Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The (mis)management of information

Sometimes I am casually reading an article and have to just stop in disbelief. No, they can't possibly be saying what I think they are saying.

Here is such a paragraph in an article about athletics at the University of Tennessee:
University of Tennessee is different than most, however. It is one of a handful of public university athletics departments that do not receive state dollars or money from the university's academic side. In short, whatever money UT athletics brings in, that's what it can spend. The only exception is $1 million in student fees that are used to support women's sports.

So many things going on here, it's hard to figure out where to begin.

The first thing to note is that it is very difficult to prove definitively what is true or false or a just a little bit off in the above statement. This is because, as we--and so many others--have mentioned before, accounting practices in athletic departments are not uniform across institutions and generally are quite confusing if not outright misleading.

Second, there are some things we can probably figure out by what little information we have. The above paragraph makes it seem like men's sports are self-supporting and women's sports rely on student fees to exist. This is not the case. There are not two separate athletic departments. They all take from the same pool. Football at UT does appear to make money (this does not take into consideration costs associated with facilities (energy, upkeep, staffing, etc.) but that does not mean that these revenues support say men's tennis over women's track. Whether it's really true that UT athletics takes no money from the state or the "academic side" of things could be true. (According to the numbers at the Department of Education website they operate about 3 million in the black.) But there is a large chunk of non-gender and non-sport specific revenues (of which I would assume the student fee is a part) that it would be difficult to find a complete explanation for. Fees, boosters, donors, etc. is my guess. But again it is revenue not specifically generated by one sport or gender and is not applied to one gender or sport.

And lastly, the paragraph reads like a fact--unequivocal. Did this information come from the university and/or the athletic department? Did the writer/editors, using information provided by the university, just presume that student fees only support women's sports? Which way the misinformation flowed may be difficult to discern. And it is likely that it is flowing in all sorts of directions. Because the problems exist at multiple levels. Stats and data are presented as neutral. They are read and interpreted by people who believe they too are neutral/unbiased. And then we get incidences like the above and, of course, all the other information presented as fact to people who really want to believe a particular version of how intercollegiate athletics operate.