Was there ever a “Golden Age” of intercollegiate sports? Many Americans believe that before the era of Big Time Football, pro baseball and NBA Basketball, going back to the mid-Nineteenth Century, there was a time when collegians competed only for the pure love of their sport, pushed by the desire to excel and to triumph over their opponents. The reality, however, suggests that this halcyon era never did exist; that from its very inception, intercollegiate athletics in America were tainted by commercialism and corruption. Indeed, the very first National Collegiate Athletic Association(NCAA) event in the mid-1850s was a rowing match on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee between Harvard and Yale organized by the operator of the Boston-Montreal railroad line interested in building up passenger traffic and getting riders to spend a weekend at the lake. “He got a cut of everything,” says sports journalist/author Mark Yost, an authority on the economics of the sporting world. “The players all got graft, they got paid cash, (and) little trinkets like silver rowing oars from Tiffany’s” valued at about $500. About that time, Harvard also brought back an outstanding alumni coxswain to help them defeat Yale, a flagrant eligibility violation, and called back alumnus pro player Lee Richmond from the Worcester Sentinels, to help them win a ball game.
Unfortunately, illegal payoffs continue to this very day. The Arkansas football program was put on probation because an alumnus was hiring players at $500 a week for no-show jobs during the summer off-season. Penalties meted out to offending colleges are not really a deterrent, Yost says, because what’s a $5 million penalty to a school with a $100 million athletic budget? “It’s nothing. It really doesn’t deter them, and they know that they’re likely not to get caught again, and they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing, because the NCAA enforcement process is so lax. It really is,” he explains. He points out that when a school is found in violation, it is allowed to conduct its own investigation and recommend its own penalty. “And oftentimes the NCAA says, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s fine, that sounds like a fair penalty to us.'” Yost adds, “I honestly don’t know how else you would police it, but it’s a little shady to try to make it sound like the NCAA is this vigilant organization when, really, they’re just relying on the schools to police themselves.”
Football at the turn of the 20th century was so brutal that dozens of players got killed each year. A distressed President Theodore Roosevelt got involved with a national commission to try to curtail it but discovered he was not strong enough to challenge the power of the Harvard alumni backing the football program, and eventually gave up trying to reform it, Yost said. At Yale, besides free tuition, footballers were paid to play the game out of a $100,000 slush fund; and upon graduation, they walked into waiting jobs. The rules’ violations were so flagrant that by the end of World War II Ivy League schools opted out of intercollegiate sports. They likely would have agreed with Jerry Tarkanian, the University of Nevada basketball coach, who quipped, “Nine out of 10 teams in college basketball are cheating and the 10th one is in last place.” So, Yost says, “They really did start to become very seriously concerned about their academic integrity and I think they just saw college athletics as being so corrupt…that they just opted out of it.” Phil Hughes, the Associate Athletic Director for Academics of Kansas State, Manhattan, referred with shocking candor to his student athletes as “an entertainment product.” Hughes told Yost his job is to make certain the “entertainment product” goes to class and study sessions and drops in at the 24-hour tutoring center just for the athletics in order for them to maintain a “C” average—and their NCAA eligibility. Many a college athlete, unfortunately, falls below that level.
Where about 80 percent of all college students graduate, that rate for athletes often is as low as 30 percent. Basketball coach Bob Huggins, who spent years at Cincinnati, was relieved of his job there perhaps because the graduation rate for his team plummeted to zero. For most schools, says Yost, “the graduation rates for their athletes are at least 30 to 40 points below what they are for their general student body.” Only at Notre Dame can student athletes boast a graduation rate that is higher than that of the general student body, and that difference usually is but a tenth of a single percentage point.
Yost, author of “Varsity Green: a Behind The Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics,” (Stanford University Press), gives his views on the February 6th Comcast SportsNet’s “Books of Our Time” broadcast, sponsored by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. Asked by interviewer Holly Vietzke, professor of law, why Notre Dame shines in a field of dismal failures, Yost replies, “I think it’s a bit of their Catholic principles…plus the fact they just decided that they’re going to hold their athletes’ feet to the fire, that they have to be as academically rigorous as they are athletically.” Notre Dame became the first school to develop exclusive athlete academic centers under engineering Professor Mike de Cicco, who was tapped for the task by then President Father Edmund Joyce, and the practice spread widely from there. Notre Dame has shown, Yost says, “that you don’t have to take the worst kids, kids that are academically ineligible to be at the school,” and if everybody hued to that standard “it would still be a level playing field, it would still be academically and athletically gifted kids going to these universities and playing these sports.”
Today, Yost says, when football brings in an incredible amount of money—so much so that it supports all of a school’s other intercollegiate athletic programs—university presidents are having no better luck at trying to bring change than President Roosevelt during his term of office. They are faced with this conundrum, Yost said: “They understand that if they were to take on the corruption that’s going on… it would take up so much of their time it would be a years-long fight as so many alumni tie their giving to the athletic program and athletic success. It’s an incredibly powerful fiefdom within the university system that almost no college president wants to take on.” And booster groups are the chief source of income for many winning coaches. At North Carolina, for example, basketball Hall of Fame head coach Roy Williams is paid “only” $260,000 by the school. However, his total remuneration is about $1.6 million, according to Yost. “Most of these coaches are paid by booster groups, such as the Wolfpack Club at North Carolina State. They’re paid out of the media revenues from television and radio contracts. They’re paid by endorsement deals from Nike and Adidas and Under Armour. Only about 10 percent of a top coach’s salary comes out of the school’s finances. The rest is all paid by these side deals which are all negotiated by the athletic department.” Yost points out that while the university never sees very much of that money what it does reap goes to run the entire athletic department, “so you could argue that without the big money of men’s basketball and men’s football, there would be no men’s wrestling, there would be no women’s lacrosse, or any of these other non-revenue producing sports.” At Ohio, Texas, and like schools there are 20 or more varsity sports, Yost says. Without football and basketball revenues, this number might shrink to 10 or 12.
If successful football and basketball programs are sacrosanct, it is likely because the take is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Both Ohio State and Texas have athletic budgets in excess of $110 million a year, Yost notes. And much of this money is spent as fast as it comes in. At Ohio State two years ago, the author noted, the school’s athletic program wound up with a $1,700 profit on its $110 million expenditure. The income, Yost says, goes not only to support track and swimming and golf teams but “to build lavish stadiums and practice facilities.” Universities and their booster clubs don’t always mind paying high-profile coaches because they can transform an athletic program and bring down a shower of cash. Bob Huggins, who got booted out of Cincinnati, was hired by Kansas State to work his magic there. As Yost noted, “he not only revives teams, he revives a school’s brand.” Kansas State had not been to an invitation-only tournament in 20 years and had tried unsuccessfully for 10 years to get a Nike apparel contract. (In return for a school’s teams all wearing Nike apparel showing off its logo, Nike will outfit every sports team fielded by the school.) Two weeks after Huggins materialized on campus, Kansas had a $5-million Nike all-school contract. Plus, Kansas was immediately invited to an elite basketball tournament in Florida, which Yost notes is important because a school’s revenue-sharing in its conference is based on its TV time. “Huggins immediately got Kansas an ESPN national broadcast,” Yost said, where before, their games had been televised on a regional sports channel, so that in one year Huggins pumped about $10- to $15 million into its athletic program. What’s more, a school can count on alumni donations going up if and when one of its teams goes to a bowl game or makes the Final Four. A study by The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that alumni giving surges $8 to $10 on average when that happens. Multiplied by a couple of hundred thousand alumni, schools can reap a windfall. Similarly, application rates go up as well in tandem with the visibility of a school’s ballplayers.
The more successful a coach is, the fatter the pay envelope. “If you win your conference, you get a bonus. If you get a bowl bid, you get a bonus and if you win the bowl game you get a bonus on top of that,” Yost says. “So a lot of it is performance-based structure, just like CEOs at major corporations. All the major coaches have them, including (basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski) at Duke and (Hall of Fame football head coach Joe) Paterno of Penn State and Tom Izzo, head basketball coach at Michigan State.” Coaches of non-remunerative sports don’t begin to fare as well. “There’s only 100 or 200 coaches in the country who make these really big dollars,” Yost said. On average, a Division II football coach makes $80,000 to $100,000 a year and even a top-flight women’s volleyball or basketball coach earns only $60,000 a year.
“TV revenue is really the devil here,” Yost says, adding, “it’s why these schools are driven to bend the rules, and bring kids in who are academically ineligible to come and play sports.” He cites the example of former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who enjoyed a $4 million salary package. “About $2.5 million was paid by ISP Sports, the media company that had bought their broadcast rights. That’s a big chunk of the revenue and salary structure for these big-time coaches,” Yost says. “And the ISP contract for a school like Auburn—which is a big football school but nowhere near a Michigan State or Notre Dame—was $56 million for the television rights.”
Asked by Professor Vietzke if the TV money ever helps fund scholarships, Yost replied in rare cases that it does. At Notre Dame, which landed the first-ever national broadcast contract with NBC, administrators set aside a portion of the revenue to fund both undergraduate and graduate scholarships, as well as to build a new science building and purchase lab equipment. Again, when the University of Minnesota sold the naming rights of its new stadium to TCF Bank, one provision in the contract was that the bank contribute about $1 million a year to academic scholarships. “Most of the money, though,” Yost continued, “stays within the athletic department, which is a separate entity” and the funds are used to fund the sports that don’t generate any cash flow. But even when the construction of a new stadium finances scholarships, as it did at Michigan, it can ignite campus controversy. The Michigan stadium gave the academic side of the house an issue to complain about the athletic side of the house, Yost said. This flap occurred even though the stadium was considered “democratic” in nature in that it had no luxury suites and all its seats were equally priced.
Noting the “seismic shift” in the alignment of the major conferences, interviewer Vietzke asked Yost what role TV revenue played. He responded that Texas, a member of the Big 12, was wooed by the Pac-10 but elected to remain in the Big 12 because that conference doled out TV revenues in proportion to the amount of TV time each school chalked up and Texas dominated the conference. It was really in their interest “to stay in a conference where they have the dominant TV time and they get the dominant amount of revenues. The whole bowl and conference-realignment thing is totally driven by TV money.” Yost says if a school makes the Bowl Championship Series it can reap rewards approaching $20 million.
The big critique of today’s intercollegiate sports system is that “the kids are the ones that are hurt (as) everyone is making money except these kids,” Yost says. “Granted, they’re being given a four-year scholarship and, if they remain healthy, they can take advantage of whatever academic opportunities are offered to them, but it’s really a system that some people have compared to slavery.” He goes on to say that the players “are expected to go into this multi-billion dollar business, but not take a dollar from boosters, not have an agent, not having anyone representing them and just to play for the glory of the university while the university racks in all this money on top of this free labor.”
The other critique is that the players aren’t getting an education but are taking “cake courses in departments that are sympathetic to the athletic mission, and that they end up at the end of four years with 60 or 70 credits, no opportunity and no prospects for a pro career,” Yost observes. “And they end up going back to wherever farm, whatever inner-city neighborhood they came from. And overnight, it’s all gone: no more tutoring, no more training table, no more being the big man on campus, and that’s the real tragedy of this system.”
He says the NBA’s “One and Done” rule requiring high school players to attend college for a year is window dressing in that it requires players to attend college when they don’t have any intention of graduating, and “when they get to June and they have Ds and Fs and Cs it doesn’t matter, because they’re going to apply for the NBA draft.” As for NFL rule that requires players to be out of high school for three years before they can be recruited, Yost said it has nothing to do with the NFL wanting the players to get a higher education and everything to do “with putting weight on.” Yost explains that NFL linemen today weigh 320 to 350 pounds and even running backs average 240 pounds or better. So this isn’t about getting an education, it’s about “putting meat on their bones.” Players who come out of high school weighing 270 or 280 pounds have “got to go and spend four years in the weight room and really put a lot of meat and mass on their bonesto be able to even survive in the NFL today.”
Yost says that colleges promote a false dream to players when they tell them that if they play hard and study hard it will lead to a professional career. The reality, however is bleak: fewer than one percent of the college athletes have any meaningful NBA career. “They may play for a couple of years or go play in the world league or something so it’s really a lie that’s being told these kids and the reality is that it’s not true.” Yost adds that the media compounds the myth by focusing on the two percent of athletes who make it and “completely ignores the 98 percent of athletes who end up back home with 60 credit hours, no degree, no future. It really is tragic the way we treat some of these kids,” he says. “It’s a system that uses these kids and then just throws them away when they’re done with them.” Yost concludes, “Let’s be honest, a lot of schools such as Nebraska, Penn State and Texas are training grounds for the NFL, that’s really all they are.”
The Massachusetts School of Law, producers of the SportsNet show “Books of Our Time,” was founded in 1988 to provide a rigorous, affordable legal education to students from minority, immigrant and low-income households who would otherwise not be able to enter the legal profession.
SHERWOOD ROSS is a media consultant for the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover; reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.