In 2011, the NCAA received over eight-hundred million dollars in income. Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, makes about 1.7 million a year. While this pales in comparison to the salaries of some university presidents (U of Chicago President Robert Zimmer makes 3.4 million) it still places him in the top five percent of Americans. How did the non-profit college sports organization based in Indianapolis, Indiana become such a lucrative business endeavor? We can start by looking at the history of the NCAA.
College football originated in the early 20th century, and early iterations of the game were violent and dangerous, even by today’s standards. Founded in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the NCAA was created to establish safety standards in college football and encourage intercollegiate athletics. It created the division I, II, and III leagues to incorporate universities from around the nation. In the 1950’s, the NCAA began to exercise control over national television broadcasting rights, creating a huge source of income for college sports. In the 1960’s, the NFL was formed and football quickly became one of the most popular events in America. The NCAA gained jurisdiction over college basketball in the late ‘30’s, and with the rise of television the division one March Madness tournament quickly grew to match the popularity of college football.
The modern NCAA operates less like a rules organization and more like a business. The “Official NCAA Corporate Champions” are AT&T, CapitalOne, and Coca-Cola. Each of these three companies invests more than 35 million to the NCAA, funding tournaments and billions in athletic scholarships. CBS, the entertainment conglomerate and owner of Viacom (MTV, Comedy Central, Paramount Pictures) has exclusive rights to show NCAA game footage. The Final Four tournament is one of the most watched events on television. A thirty second spot during the championship game costs around 16 million. College football is equally lucrative. Florida State brought in an average of $38 million from Seminole football in the last three years. Alabama made more than twice that amount. In 2013, FSU completed its new $15 million dollar practice facility. Head coach Jimbo Fisher is paid around $4 million a year (the highest paid professor at FSU makes around $300k). All this spending is an effort to level the playing field with the SEC super-programs like Auburn and Alabama.
As an educational institution, one would think that Florida State University would use the revenue and publicity gained by winning the 2013 BCS National Championship to bolster educational opportunities for its students. Despite this massive income from sports, FSU, along with The University of Florida, voted to increase tuition in 2013. This represents the skewed mindset of university officials. Universities are no longer idyllic places of learning where education and building student’s futures are the main focus. Increasingly, the nation’s top colleges are operating more like businesses than schools. The revenue from football and basketball should go towards funding research and education, not millionaire head coaches, opulent practice facilities, and the thousands of student athletes on scholarship.
The issue of the student-athlete has been especially prevalent in 2014, as for the first time ever, student athletes from Northwestern University have taken steps to unionize. They see the massive profits universities are making from their hard work and they want a piece of the pie. Their pleas are not unjustified. However, colleges argue that the free education and opportunity for athletic advancement in leagues above college is payment enough. NCAA sports are one of the main routes to going to the NFL or NBA, and college sports are seen as training leagues for young athletes. The draft has become one of the most important facets of pro sports, with some team’s entire seasons banking on receiving top picks. Who benefits most from this situation? This question is indicative of the iron triangle that exists between universities, pro sports, and college athletes.
Pro sports teams benefit in that they can acquire talent in the draft, universities benefit from the revenue that college sports bring in, and players benefit in that they are receiving free educations and the opportunity to potentially go pro. So, if all three of these parties are receiving concrete benefits, who are the losers in the scenario? The suckers, unfortunately, are the regular students. Students who attend football schools like FSU and Alabama pay tuition that goes into supporting this athletic system and see few benefits other than the chance to tailgate and go to football games. These same students, many of whom are not super athletes but dedicated scholars, do not receive nearly as much funding from universities, and often graduate with crippling debt. According to a 2013 study by the Delta Cost Project, Universities spend an average of $92 thousand on athletes, compared to $14 thousand for average students. Colleges around the nation must ultimately ask the question, are they learning institutions first and sports franchises second, or is it the other way around?
by NICHOLAS FARRELL / contributing writer