Footing the bill
Colleges increasingly passing costs of sports programs on to non-scholarship students
The conventional wisdom in the national media regarding collegiate sports is that the universities are making billions in profits off the uncompensated labor of their student-athletes.
As is often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. In this case, it is spectacularly wrong.
Yes, new TV deals in football and men’s basketball continue to pay more and more money in rights fees. The Southeastern Conference and ESPN just signed a new deal that sees ESPN paying the SEC $3 billion over 10 years for the right to broadcast SEC football games.
But less often reported is the reality that the vast majority of universities continue to spend even more money than they bring in, hoping to someday join the handful of elite schools that actually do make money on athletics: Your Alabamas and Ohio States, your Floridas and Texases and USCs and Notre Dames.
Lost on too many reporters and columnists, though, is the fact that just because you’re bringing in billions of dollars doesn’t mean you’re in the black financially: No matter how much money is coming in, you can always spend more if you’re not disciplined.
And most of our nation’s largest universities are, in fact, not disciplined.
Study after study has shown that the overwhelming majority of universities continue to lose money on their intercollegiate athletics programs. The Best Colleges website ran an analysis in the fall of 2020 that found that of the 65 “Power Five Conference” universities (those in the Big 10, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12), only 25 broke even or made money on their sports programs.
Which means that even your smaller schools in the most profitable conferences are spending more on sports than they bring in.
The other 64 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision sports universities - Conference USA, Mountain West Conference, Sunbelt Conference, American Conference, Mid-American Conference - all lose money. Every. Single. One.
A median loss of $23 million a year.
And there are also 125 Division I Football Championship Subdivision teams, which aren’t even in the running for the big national football bowl games.
All 125 lose money.
A median loss of $14.3 million a year.
There are 97 Division I schools without football.
They all lose money.
All the Division II and Division III schools lose money on sports.
In fact, out of 1,100 schools in the NCAA (there are also 252 schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, which typically don’t offer scholarships - or have TV deals), 25 made money on athletics.
That is fewer than 3 percent.
All of these schools are chasing a mirage; even those two dozen schools - again, your Ohio States, your Alabamas - that show a net profit on sports, the median profit is just under $8 million. Not billion. Million.
Considering that college and university presidents are paid six- and seven-figure salaries to manage their institutions’ assets, they seem to be awfully lousy at math. Even if they get to the promised land and are able to generate that $8 million a year in athletics profit, it is not going to do much to help the finances at a school as large as San Diego State - which has an annual budget of $1.03 billion.
College sports have devolved into an ever-escalating money pit, in which university administrators spend more and more money chasing a tiny hope of a relatively modest income source.
Desperate for money to prop up these programs and entice elite high school athletes to select their university and not someone else’s - building new stadiums and arenas, new practice facilities and team dorms, weight rooms and private dining halls for athletes - an increasing number of universities have turned to a largely unreported source of income: Non-scholarship students.
Students paying their own way through college - whether by working, taking out loans, applying for grants, getting help from mom and dad - now regularly have to factor in hundreds of dollars a semester in additional fees that exist solely to underwrite their campus’ intercollegiate sports programs. It’s basically a surcharge for the privilege of attending a school with sports teams.
Depending on the campus’ governing documents, fees can be imposed on incoming students in a variety of ways. Private colleges and universities may be able to simply add the assessment by vote of the trustees, or by executive fiat. But public universities in many cases require that students get a vote on any new fee assessment above and beyond tuition.
Just over the past few years, we’ve seen student government (often know as Associated Students) at numerous universities presented with requests from the administration to place a referendum on the next ballot to impose or raise an existing fee to underwrite intercollegiate sports programs:
• University of California, Riverside is currently requesting a $90 per student per quarter increase (from the current $25)
• Last fall, students at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, were asked to approve a $23 per credit hour fee to finance athletics. (They voted no.)
• Washington State University five years ago asked its students to consolidate fees of $265 per student, making the athletics fee mandatory.
• Also five years ago, Texas A&M Commerce students approved a referendum bumping the Intercollegiate Athletics Fee from $11 per semester credit hour to $32. (So a student carrying a full course load of 16 credits would pay $512 a semester.)
• And the University of California, San Diego - one of the most academically prestigious public universities in the country - recently jumped to Division I (minus football), based on a 2007 referendum that added a $78 / student / quarter fee.
While students at many public universities at least get to have a say in proposed fees to underwrite athletics, these votes are rarely truly democratic.
At Texas A&M Commerce, for instance, the university press release touted the 4:1 victory margin. But out of a student population of more than 12,000 at the time, only about 2,000 in total voted. So rather than 80 percent of students approving of the proposal, the truth is that only 8 percent actually voted in favor.
Most never cast a ballot at all.
When I was at San Diego State in the mid-1980s, the administration wanted to assess a student fee for athletics in order to finance a new on-campus basketball arena. In order to do so, under state law, the student body had to be allowed to vote on the issue.
So a campuswide referendum was held, in which students were asked to vote on whether to assess “themselves” a future fee increase to help subsidize the new arena.
Except those of us casting a ballot (and, regrettably, I very vocally supported this effort via my role as opinion page editor of the student newspaper) were NOT, in fact, deciding whether WE would pay higher fees: We were voting on whether FUTURE students would pay the fee, as the new fee wasn’t going to kick in for a few years.
There was a time that sort of practice was known as taxation without representation.
And this is not an aberration - most of the examples cited above were similarly structured, with the new fee or the increase going into effect a year or two after the vote.
An NBC News report from two years ago determined that 80 percent of colleges and universities charge such fees - but that report barely generated a ripple of interest in the larger national media, with few if any outlets following up with their own reporting.
And once these new or increased fees are approved by the current study body, there is rarely if ever a method for subsequent students - the ones actually paying the fees - to overturn the agreement. Since these student fees are often used as collateral on building loans, it’s often a 20- or 30-year commitment - a commitment made when the students paying the back end of the loan weren’t even yet born.
(Although credit the current students at University of California, Davis, who last month managed to get a non-binding resolution on ending a current $570 annual athletic assessment in front of students. While more than 70 percent of those who voted favored ending the subsidy, fewer than 20 percent of the student body voted, so the measure did not qualify as an official fee referendum. And the administration had already indicated it did not endorse the validity of the measure.)
Now, the argument can be made that all incoming students know the fees and assessments they will have to pay, in addition to tuition, books and rent - and there is truth to that.
But in all the pious media sermons on how “unfairly” college athletes are treated, and how “rich” universities are getting off of this “free” labor, the plight of the vast majority of students struggling to pay for their education is almost universally overlooked.
For the average student, who is taking on student debt or getting help from their parents, it’s a pretty hollow argument that the free tuition, room and board that scholarship athletes receive in exchange for competing on one of the campus’ sports teams is a form of “uncompensated” labor. Most of us would consider $50,000 a year or more in benefits to play a game a pretty fair deal.
This is particularly true when students who are paying for college through loans are adding hundreds or thousands of dollars to their debt each year for the privilege of subsidizing private athletic facilities like dedicated weight rooms, dining halls and libraries that those footing the bill don’t even get to step foot in - outside a quick tour during freshman orientation!
With state legislators in California, New York, and other states now looking at requiring schools to pay athletes a salary in addition to their free tuition, books and housing, the only place campus administrators are going to have to turn is going to be the non-scholarship students.
It is difficult to imagine that this trend is sustainable over the long haul. The argument for having a competitive intercollegiate sports program that doesn’t provide an income stream to the university is that it helps increase the school’s national profile and prestige, helping drive enrollment of students who wouldn’t otherwise attend, would-be students who see having sports teams to cheer for as an integral part of the college experience, and encouraging alumni to donate at higher levels than they otherwise would.
Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association, which assists student government at colleges across the country with training and materials support, pointed out that at some smaller Division III schools that don’t offer scholarships, many students choose that school simply so they can continue to play a sport they love at a competitive level: “Sometimes 50 percent or more of students at a school will be ‘college athletes.’ Many go to that particular school SO they can play a college sport.”
For those student-athletes, then, any fee to subsidize athletics is undoubtedly justified by the personal rewards they get from taking part in their sport of choice.
The larger question looming over these growing subsidies, though, is how long will the non-athlete, non-scholarship student be willing to attend a university where they may see thousands of dollars added to the cost of their education over the course of four years? A cost that will only increase if states begin demanding that athletes receive a salary on top of their scholarship.
Two other trends to consider regarding this issue in coming years:
• Will student debt “forgiveness” include the thousands of dollars a student paid in athletic subsidy fees? If so, are we really asking taxpayers to pick up the bill for underwriting college athletics?
• If, as many predict, the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) payments many elite college athletes are now receiving from alumni booster groups begin to cut into the donations those alumni would otherwise have given to the university’s athletic department, will administrators again turn to paying students to make up that difference?
Tales From the Newsroom
Three decades in the newspaper business may not have been particularly remunerative, but it did make for some interesting experiences, which I’ll share here from time to time.
When I was hired as a copy editor at the Oceanside Blade-Citizen in the early 1990s, I was initially given the task of helping to edit the features content. Most of our regular lifestyle columnists were not full-time staff members, but folks in the community, and so their writing wasn’t always particularly graceful nor grammatical.
The first article I was assigned to edit was a column from an elderly rabbi’s wife, urging our female readers to be sure to perform their breast cancer self-exams on a regular basis. It was a good, worthy topic, and impressively well-written for someone not in the business. I was relieved that I’d apparently been given low-hanging fruit for my first task at my new job.
In her final paragraph, though, trying to include the male readership as well, she’d written that men, too, need to check themselves for cancer - and reminded men to regularly perform a prostate self-exam: urging them to do so regularly, and to take their time, perhaps perform this important task in the shower, and be sure to feel carefully all around the organ for any unusual growths or bumps.
Having undergone a full military physical while enrolled in Air Force ROTC in college, I was all too familiar with the particulars of a prostate exam - and was concerned that readers attempting to perform this task on themselves were at risk of breaking a wrist if they slipped and fell down in the shower mid-procedure.
I went to the copy chief, and asked if perhaps the columnist didn’t mean that men should perform a testicular self-exam on a regular basis - as that is something the medical profession recommends that men do, and many doctors will suggest that a shower is as good a time as any to do this.
The copy chief read the passage in question, told me she suspected I was correct - but also pointed out that professional courtesy would dictate that I call the rabbi’s wife and double check with her before changing her column.
I’ve probably had a few conversations in my life that were more awkward than talking to an octogenarian woman I’d never met - married to a faith leader no less! - about how a prostate exam is performed, but I sure can’t recall any off the top of my head.
By the end of the conversation, she agreed it should be changed - and I was spared the guilt of having dozens of our male readers having to explain to the ER staff exactly how it was they broke their wrist.
Break Out the Headphones
The stage name of guitarist, singer and songwriter Jeff Higgins, Reddog first burst on the national scene during the blues renaissance of the 1980s. Drawn from the Stevie Ray Vaughan - Johnny Winter fabric of blues rock, Reddog issued a series of albums on his own Survival Records label beginning in 1986.
He didn’t seem to tour much, apparently mostly gigging around the Atlanta area. But every so often, his publicist would send me a new LP to consider reviewing - and every time there’d be a song or two there that would just get stuck in my head: “Theme From Texas,” “.44 Magnum Man,” “Nobody Knows Your Name,” “Honest Man,” “Spankin’ the Plank.”
In his approach to the guitar, he was closer to Jimmie Vaughan than he was to Stevie Ray - interspersing linear runs between chordal romps that gave him an instantly recognizable sound. And he played the kind of raw, joyful roots rock that was so popular in the 1980s and ‘90s - if he’d toured, he’d have been playing the same blues clubs as George Thorogood, Robert Cray, The Tail Gators, or the Beat Farmers.
After the mid-’90s, I didn’t hear from him anymore. A lot of his songs were on various mixtapes I had - and, later, iTunes playlists - so I never forgot about him.
Last fall, his publicist (then and now) Mark Pucci, sent me an email wondering if I was interested in hearing a new Reddog album, “Booze, Blues and Southern Grooves,” that would be released in 2022.
I might have knocked my beer over rushing to type “YES” and hitting reply.
It turns out that Reddog has relocated to Pensacola, Fla., and put together a new band. On his new album, his guitar setup sounds pretty much the same - the same tonal quality. Might be the exact same rig of axe and amp.
What has changed, though, is his approach to the music. It’s not a jarring change, it’s more of a maturation - there’s more jazz in his playing now, more southern soul. He seems more focused on finding the right note than in playing the most notes, closer in approach to Ronnie Earl than his own earlier self.
I wouldn’t call his playing restrained, not with all the passion he pours into his solos. It’s that his playing seems more focused that it was in the past - less visible flame, perhaps, but more heat.
If I would have labeled his previous recordings blues or roots rock, the new one is closer to soul. Clayton Ivey’s presence on organ and piano only adds to that pervading feel of R&B here, and the inclusion of Carla Russell, Mary Mason and Angela Hacker on background vocals just seals it. Veteran Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood and either Justin Holder or Bill Stewart on drums provide the foundational groove that Reddog and Ivey play atop of.
And this is much more of an ensemble work than his earlier recordings, which were all clearly focused on his guitar playing and singing. The new attitude is reflected in the album being credited to “Reddog and Friends.”
“Down, Down, Down,” which he first recorded in 1986, was a pretty straight-ahead blues piece anchored by his opening guitar lead and then vocal. The version found on the new album opens with Ivey’s organ and Holder’s drum for half a measure before Reddog takes the lead with a big, fat sound on his electric guitar. While the new version might have a slightly faster tempo, it actually comes across as more relaxed due to the interplay between Reddog and Ivey. The addition of the backing vocalists adds another element of warmth to this reading of the song.
“Honest Man,” which he originally recorded in ’89 in a similar arrangement to his ’86 version of “Down, Down, Down,” benefits even more from his new approach. The opening riffs of Ivey’s piano lead into Reddog’s much more introspective vocal than was used on the original.
The other songs are all solid, as well. “Love, You’ve Got to Spread the Word” kicks off the album with a nice opening riff on guitar that reminds not a little of the late Robert Ward before Ivey’s organ kicks in and segues into a glorious soul vocal with Reddog sharing the lead with his backing singers on the chorus. A gorgeous little figure on organ and guitar creates a melodic hook that will catch in your ear. And the message is spot on:
Love your children and keep them safe
Your heart’s in your home, it’s a sacred place
Tell them to love, avoid the hate
Take care, the world will be a better place
The instrumental “Don’t Muscle That Shuffle” is the closest to his 1980s and ’90s recordings, It opens with a chord / arpeggio run on guitar before Reddog turns up the volume and lays out the theme in a linear form. The extended solo about halfway through is a nice summation of where he is musically: imaginative, passionate, tasteful.
It’s good to have him back.
On the Nightstand
“Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole,” by Will Friedwald
I got this awhile ago, and started reading it last year. It’s interesting - how could it not be, with the subject matter at hand - but very detailed, and thus at times a bit of a slog.
Friedwald is mostly interested in Cole the artist - every recording session is covered, every song.
And Cole’s transition from straight-ahead jazz pianist to popular crooner is given fair treatment in comparison to the general narrative that Cole simply sold out. In Friedwald’s telling Cole felt constrained by the stylistic borders of jazz - he wanted to branch out like Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and his contemporaries, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
Cole’s personal life is also covered - his first marriage, the slow growing apart of the couple, his meeting and marrying Maria, the two daughters. The affairs are acknowledged, but never in a salacious manner.
This is a serious, compelling biography of an important artist who did much to shape post-war musical taste in America. Friedwald took his time and did the necessary research to present as complete, balanced and fair a portrait as possible.