By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist
DETROIT — You can’t spell commercialization without NCAA.
Once that seemed like a coincidence. Increasingly it seems to be the reason the NCAA exists — to provide cover for member schools while they chase every last sponsorship dollar.
Although those schools haven’t resorted to temporary tattoos, just about everything else that was once taboo — ads from casinos, corporate logos slapped on college arenas and courts, video games in which the players aren’t named but the resemblance is unmistakable — is now routine.
Even the paper cups used at concession stands inside Ford Field during the Final Four,
which were unmarked except for a small NCAA logo until last year, now advertise the official water of the NCAA.
It’s important to be clear upfront that while the organization can punish member schools for all kinds of cheating, it can’t do a thing about the profligate spending that has athletic departments auctioning off pieces of their teams like body parts to the highest bidder. And it’s about to get worse.
No more than a handful of the 330 Division I sports programs made money in recent years. According to the NCAA’s latest figures from 2005-06, the average basketball team took in $480,000 and spent $1.3 million, with the deficit being made up in most cases by the university’s general fund. With new accounting standards in place that require including expenses such as new stadiums and facilities upgrades, the real losses could total several times that.
“For a long time,” NCAA president Myles Brand said Thursday, “it was believed that you could make money doing this. Right now, as everyone knows, if you’re going to support the entire program, not just the two revenue sports (football and basketball), it’s highly likely you’re going to lose money.”
Brand, who made his name in college sports by firing Bob Knight at Indiana, was among the leaders of a movement a dozen years ago to shift control of the NCAA from athletic directors to university presidents. The theory was that peer-group pressure would put an end to the “financial arms race” of escalating coaches salaries and bigger stadiums that forced schools deeper and deeper into the red just to stay competitive.
So how’s that theory working out for you?
If anything, judging by the nearly $4 million a year Kentucky just shoveled in the direction of John Calipari, the tail is wagging the dog even harder.
“What ’97 was,” Brand acknowledged, “was really an attempt to inform the presidents better about what the facts of the matter are. And I think we’ve done a good job informing them. They still do make their own decisions, though.”
It’s not making money that’s a problem, but the hypocrisy it’s cloaked in. If the NCAA would quit hyping its “academic mission” and referring to ballplayers — in the revenue sports, anyway — as “student-athletes” they would deserve a lot less scorn. If the organization and the school were serious about either of those things, coaches wouldn’t make 20 times what university presidents make, and 50 times what tenured professors do.
The biggest difference between college and pro athletes, other than the fact that the pros are better, is that college kids don’t get paid. That won’t change anytime soon, but not for a lack of complaining. Three North Carolina starters said they’d love to get paid, a fourth called himself “kind of in the middle” and only Tyler Hansbrough said no.
“We should get paid,” Ty Lawson said speaking for an overwhelming majority of his peers. “The NCAA makes a lot of money.”
Increasingly, the organization is blurring lines to do just that.
Murray Sperber, a professor in the University of California’s graduate school of education and longtime critic of commercialization in college sports, said it would only take one test case to break the schools’ hold on all that free labor.
“Eventually an athlete is going to sue and say ‘Hey, my athletic scholarship is chump change for the money I’m generating. This is professional sports, and I should get paid something,’” Sperber said.
“When the NCAA replies, “No, no, this is amateur sports, this is just a sideline the students do, lawyers for the plaintiffs will trot out all the commercialization stuff. … They
want the fiction these guys were regular students. That’s changing. That fiction is
getting thinner and thinner.”