Role of athletics remains in dispute

Intercollegiate sports are a road neither to riches nor to academic ruin, a study says.
Tuesday, September 16, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:06 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

MU faculty members are concerned that the university might be involved in a game not worth playing, an “arms race” that is drawing money away from the academic mission of the university and into an increasingly commercial athletics program.

Chancellor Richard Wallace shares faculty members’ concern. He forwarded an MU Faculty Council resolution to colleagues in the Big 12 Conference and around the nation last week in an attempt to encourage discussion and cooperatively find a solution to a problem with its roots in athletics’ sometimes-conflicting roles within the university.

For many, Wallace said Monday, “clean, competitive intercollegiate athletics” serve as a “window to the university,” providing important name recognition and support to the university as a whole.

Some see sports as unnecessary drain on funds

To others, sports are an unnecessary drain on university funds, with goals that run counter to the university’s scholarly mission.

“There are a lot of folks out there that could care less (about sports),” Wallace said. “But on the other hand, there are a lot of folks that care a lot about our Tigers.”

As both internal and external investigations of MU’s athletics department continue, tension between the views has grown. A recent NCAA report offers a new analysis of several commonly held beliefs, from both sides of the court, about athletics spending and its effects on the university.

The study, conducted by an independent team of analysts, focused primarily on Division I-A universities and examined several hypotheses about athletics operating expenditures. The researchers found that operating expenses for athletics represent a “relatively small share of overall academic spending” and that increased spending, on average, produces no significant increase or decrease in net revenue or winning percentages.

Study finds no connection with increased spending and alumni donations

The study found no significant connection between increased spending and an increase in alumni giving, the quality of students or expenditures at other schools. The analysts concluded that increased operating expenses “appear to be neither the road to riches nor the road to financial ruin.”

The study says there are limitations to the conclusions it presents. The lack of data regarding capital expenditures is perhaps the greatest concern.

“More than half of all Division I-A schools have either opened a new football stadium or undertaken a major renovation of their old stadium since 1990,” the study reports. Many such capital improvements are not accounted for in athletic department budget numbers and could be the real arena for the so-called arms race.

“That’s huge,” Wallace said. “It could change some of these conclusions.”

The real arms race, which the Faculty Council’s resolution seeks to scale back, might be in capital expenditures on facilities.

Missouri athletics officials say there’s no doubt this relationship exists.

The Missouri football team hasn’t improved its competition without a little spending.

Athletic Director Mike Alden and football coach Gary Pinkel have launched several projects to help MU’s facilities. Pinkel said he would have not come to Missouri in December 2000 had he not trusted that Alden would give considerable support to his program.

“I want all the resources,” Pinkel said. “I want them all. That’s really important to the program. But I think you’ve got be responsible in what you do.”

The football program has built or expanded numerous facilities in the past five years, each ranging from $250,000 to $13.1 million.

Mario Moccia, assistant athletic director in the MU Athletic Department, said Monday that the department has self-financed recent projects such as the new basketball arena, the new FieldTurf and the football weight room expansion.

“Maybe people get a little confused that we’re getting this money from sources other than people who willfully want to spend dollars or willfully want to put us on TV,” Moccia said.

While the athletic department’s total budget is slightly less than 3 percent of MU’s total budget of $1.2 billion, it generates 95 percent of that figure. Moccia said the $2.26 million the athletic department receives annually from the MU operating budget of $383 million mostly goes to debt retirement, according to a 1996 Board of Curators mandate. None of it, he said, goes to recent construction or expansion of facilities.

In addition, the athletic department writes MU a check every year for its scholarships, which Moccia said is about $5 million.

This makes analysis of the department’s fiscal relationship with the university a difficult prospect.

Professor concerned with lack of clear information

MU sociology professor Richard Hessler, a member of the Faculty Council’s Fiscal Affairs Committee, is concerned with the lack of clear information.

Hessler has been a vocal opponent of subsidizing athletics with general operating funds but said current data make it hard to accurately determine the extent of the financial support athletics receive.

“I think what we really need is a thorough, independent audit,” Hessler said. “The key to this whole debate about reining in this arms race is to get a complete financial picture.”

Wallace said Hessler’s idea has some teeth.

“There’s no problem with that whatsoever,” Wallace said. “I’m sure I can speak for Mike Alden, and we’d welcome an outside or an inside group to get with us and go through those numbers. Mike’s been very open with the executive committee of Faculty Council over the last couple of years, because they’ve been asking questions about those sort of flows.”

Although Wallace said he thinks the money going to the athletic department is relatively small, he said he would like to see the athletic department become self-supportive.

“I think so long as we’re clean and competitive, that is a real possibility for us,” Wallace said. “That would further clear the air and help in terms of all of the faculty understanding better what intercollegiate athletics is all about. As long as there’s even a nickel falling out of general operating into the intercollegiate athletic budget, that will be a concern to some.

“So I would like to see us move to a situation where intercollegiate athletics not only pays all of its own way but might even have some spillover benefits to academics, financially,” Wallace said.

According to the Wallace, MU can’t go it alone — a better idea would be for the university to cooperate with other Big 12 schools in creating change. He said the issue is on the agenda for the next Big 12 board meeting, after he mailed out the faculty council resolution.

“We’re going to have to tackle these things in concert with other institutions, but I welcome trying to find ways to do that,” Wallace said. “There’s just something fundamentally bothersome to, as it is to some of the faculty, when, as a result of competitive forces, you are led to the position where you at least believe that to remain competitive, you have to keep the competitive pace.”

He ruled out excessive reductions to athletics.

“I think we would pay a very, very heavy price,” Wallace said. “We have a history ... of being a public land-grant institution with competitive intercollegiate athletics, and a lot of folks out there care. I don’t think we can lightly ignore that and start another path.”

“I think it is necessary that we continue in this competitive environment until collectively, higher education can get a handle on it,” he said. “There is very little that we can do unilaterally.”

Wallace said the Tigers should stay clean and competitive, with the former more important than the latter.

“You can destroy it all if you end up being exposed to the world for having cheated,” Wallace said.

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