08/06 - Athletics and Academics on Louisiana’s Campuses

How do colleges and universities strike a balance between educational missions and the non-academic nature college sports?

How do colleges and universities strike a balance between their educational mission and the non-academic nature of inter-collegiate sports? Are college sports pulling scarce resources away from academic programs, or do athletics bring in needed dollars by increasing student enrollment and boosting alumni giving? Louisiana Public Square will tackle these and other issues on "Athletics and Academics on Louisiana's Campuses."

Backgrounder

"I mean, who doesn’t want to go to a school (that) has a Final Four basketball team, a National Championship football team — two years removed; dynasty in baseball; track. I mean everything, you know?"
Drew Bowden
LSU Senior

"I’m still trying to figure out why universities are in the sports business whatsoever…"
Leonard Moore, Ph.D.
LSU Department of History

Inter-collegiate sports – operating under the auspices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA – have evolved from what now seems to be the quaint amateurism of the early 20th century into a multi-billion dollar industry. The growing commercialization of college sports is due mainly to national television exposure, and it worries people like LSU history professor Leonard Moore.

"We have to remember that the primary mission of a university is to educate its students. It's a non-profit mission. It's what happens when you merge the non-profit with the for-profit sectors of the athletic departments," according to Moore. "You get a lot of conflict there."

Dr. Moore's concerns are shared by most Americans, according to a 2004 poll conducted for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Seventy-four percent believe there is a conflict between the commercialization of college athletics and academic values. Others, like LSU Gymnastics Coach D-D Breaux, take a completely opposite view.

"I don't believe that big-time sports have become too commercialized. I believe that it has become commercialized and I believe it is something that is necessary." Breaux says, "The monies that are required to put our teams in the forefront and advertise and do the things that we have to do at the level that we compete at here at LSU – we need the corporate dollars."

The Tigers don't seem to have much trouble attracting those dollars, according to Herb Vincent, LSU Associate Athletic Director. "The athletics program is funded through ticket sales, radio-television revenues, merchandizing, concessions, corporate sponsorships, SEC [Southeastern Conference] revenue distributions and some other means. But no state tax dollars," Vincent says, "are used to fund LSU athletics."

His department does so well that it provides financial resources to the university " …to the tune of about five million dollars per year that's transferred from athletics to the academics side of the university." Vincent says that the money is used for various functions, including "beautification of the campus and discretionary use by the Chancellor's office for improvements at LSU and for programs."

With revenues of over 60 million dollars in 2005, the Tigers can afford this largesse. But of the state's 11 public universities with NCAA Division One sports programs, only LSU'’s operates in the black. Grambling State's famous football program; Louisiana Tech's three-time national champion Lady Techsters basketball team and conference winning Warhawks of University of Louisiana, Monroe – all reside in athletic departments dependent on funds from cash-starved university budgets. Schools such as Nicholls State, Northwestern and the University of Louisiana, Monroe each spend about two and a half million dollars a year on athletics. In the case of U.L., Monroe, that’s about one million more than it spends on its library.

Figures like these don't sit well with people like LSU grad student Carlos Costa. He says he likes sports, but, "Money should be focused toward more books in the library, more computers available to students, better classrooms, better faculty. Having a top quarterback should be down there on our priority list, if a priority at all."

Money – and how it is spent – can be a good indicator of priorities. Dr. Jerry Baudin is Vice-Chancellor for Finance at LSU, where the highest paid person is the football coach. Baudin cites market factors beyond the campus for what is, nowadays, common practice at big-time sports universities.

According to Baudin, "The fans, the students here at LSU, want a winning program. Just like you do when you're recruiting faculty, you want to recruit the best for whatever discipline you're recruiting for. It is now part of the business world, if you want to call it that. Football coaches of major institutions are commanding a big salary."

Despite tight budgets, universities usually manage to find funding for inter-collegiate sports. But, in 1985, hard times forced Southeastern University in Hammond, to take a very unusual – and unpopular step. Current President, Randy Moffett says, "I think it was a matter of balance and priority. The administration and other people involved at that point thought the best thing to do was to discontinue football and redirect some of those limited resources to other programs."

Southeastern steered nearly three quarters of a million dollars to academic areas, but the pressure to reinstate football team began building immediately. According to Lions football coach Dennis Roland, "The day that football left Southeastern’s campus, there was a void – especially among our alumni and former players. And I think they never let the dream die."

Seventeen years later, in 2003, football returned to Southeastern, with one stipulation: no public funds could be involved. A private support group raised the five million dollars needed to bring the Lions back to Strawberry Stadium.

Southeastern’s situation points to the tremendous attraction a major sport team can have for students, alumni and friends of universities.

"Our first and foremost responsibility is to have students come here, get a top quality education and graduate," says Southeastern University President, Dr. Randy Moffett. "But there is a side of the university outside of the classrooms. That's student organizations and that includes our athletic programs. He thinks the return of football to the campus has, "…kindled a spirit and an enthusiasm; an engagement that we didn’t have before."

Many university administrators believe, with some justification, that success in major sports translates to success in recruiting new undergraduates. But critics of present-day inter-collegiate sports often cite the pressure to win – a "victory at any cost" mentality – as a continual threat to traditional academic values.

In 2005, NCAA placed Nicholls State University on probation for four years and imposed other sanctions for "gross academic fraud" and other violations in football, men's basketball and volleyball. The infractions took place in 2003 and 2004.

University Registrar Kelly Rodrigue discovered the fraud and immediately reported it to other administration officials. He says, "The biggest thing we've learned from this experience is that it can happen to any institution—large, small—it doesn't really matter. We had protocols in place. We thought we had everything covered. But unfortunately when one or two people want to try and possibly commit academic fraud, it t can happen."

The NCAA, in its official report, commended Nicholls State for its prompt handling of the incident.

Successful sports programs can bring positive national attention to their schools and the state as a whole. They can boost enrollment. They can feed administration dreams of increased alumni donations. But they have the power to eclipse the very institutions that host them.

LSU’s professor Leonard Moore hopes for a greater balance between sports and scholarship on our campuses. He says, "When we get just as excited about what's going on in the classroom, what the faculty are doing, what students are doing as we get excited about what’s going on Saturday nights, then I think we will be making some progress."

Some relevant research:

* Big-time athletic programs usually cost universities about as much money as they bring in. (Litan, Orszag and Orszag 2003)
* There is no relationship between increased athletic budgets and alumni giving [to the university] (Litan, Orszag and Orszag 2003)
* Athletic success increases student applications (Murphy and Trandel 1994) (Zimbalist 1999)
* A high-visibility athletic program can enhance the prestige of a university’s graduates. (Lovaglia and Lucas 2005)

Relevant Web Site:
Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics
http://www.knightcommission.org/media/item/poll_americans_are_concerned_about_college_sports/

About the NCAA
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is the de facto college sports governing body in the US. It determines everything from eligibility standards for student athletes to the requirements institutions must meet to be in one of the three NCAA Divisions. Division I is the highest tier [the NCAA is in the process of changing the names of its divisions].

As with all levels of big-time athletics, large sums of money are in play. The NCAA had revenues of over a half a billion dollars last year, almost all of that coming from television broadcast deals. The association ostensibly represents the interests of the member colleges and universities, but it has been criticized in the past for catering to the wishes of athletic directors and coaches – from whose ranks have come many of the NCAA staff.

An example of the influence of coaches is a rule change for which they lobbied heavily in 1973. It changed athletic scholarships from guaranteed four-year awards to one-year renewable grants. This gave coaches much greater control over players than they previously had.

A more recent example centers on NCAA Legislation that was adopted in 1991 to limit a student-athlete's participation in countable athletically related activities to a maximum of four hours per day and 20 hours per week. Athletic staff lobbied for wording in the legislation that allowed for additional hours of "voluntary" practice time. This loophole has been so abused that even some athletic directors have asked the NCAA to come up with a solution.

In recent years, the NCAA has shown more interest in improving student athlete academic performance. New rules covering graduation rates and other indicators of academic progress have been implemented.

Louisiana State University
FRESHMAN-COHORT GRADUATION RATES All Students Student-Athletes(1)
1998-99 Graduation Rate 56% 49%

1 Only student-athletes receiving athletics aid are included.

Click here to view the online survey results

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