As March Madness blew in with all its lavish media hype, and as Bruce Weber was blown out as basketball coach at the University of Illinois, which didn’t make the cut, disquieting numbers were dropping everywhere.
- First, Illinois said it would have to pay Weber $3.9 million for the remaining three years on his contract (just upped by the university last year). This compares to the $651,000 annual salary* of university president Michael J. Hogan, who recently announced his resignation after months of turmoil.
- Second, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pointed out, again, that only two-thirds of college basketball players graduate, and he exhorted the colleges to do better.
- Third, the University of Central Florida, in an annual report on the graduation rates of the NCAA tournament teams, noted that neither top-seeded Syracuse nor 2011 champion Connecticut met the NCAA’s recently approved academic progress requirement for tournament play, and more than 60 percent of the NCAA tournament teams had graduation rate disparities between white and black players exceeding 20 percentage points.
All of which sounded alarms in the mind of at least one Illinois taxpayer that the Weber contract burden is unconscionable at a time when the U. of I., along with other public universities, is under such severe budget pressure that it can’t adequately carry out its educational obligation to the citizenry of the state, and that the entire, expensive picture perpetuates the wrong signal to both college and high school students that even in the belt-tightened America, athletics still trump academics. Big hoopla, big money.
Turns out, I was only half right.
Tom Hardy, U. of I.’s resourceful spokesman, pointed out that the university’s $70-million budget for athletics is separate from its $5-billion regular budget, and all sports costs are borne by a combination of ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, broadcast revenues, private gifts, distributions from the BigTen and NCAA, and miscellaneous other revenues such as sport camp fees. In fact, the residue of the Weber contract, and two others terminated last fall, will total an eye-popping $7 million, according to the Daily Illini, the student newspaper. None of this comes out of the university’s academic budget, or the taxpayers. Whew!
Moreover, as Hardy noted further, the athletics department supports 19 intercollegiate teams, not just football and basketball—the money-makers—and pays for full or partial scholarships for 414 student-athletes, which last year cost $9.8 million.
So far, so good. But it gets worse, if not entirely.
The University of Central Florida’s annual study of NCAA tournament teams’ graduation rates, produced by its Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES), includes some stunning disgraces not evident under the mantle of excellent academic reputations.
Some do much better, of course, but the Central Florida overall tally is that only 60 percent of the tournament teams’ players graduate, and the rate for African-Americans is a paltry 38 percent. This makes a mockery of the term “student-athlete” and of the sumptuous “scholarship” programs that support them. No wonder so many tournament players are aiming for a lucrative NBA contract rather than a sheepskin that may be out of reach.
But here’s the good part. Illinois, of course, isn’t included in this year’s NCAA tournament graduation statistics, but last year, when it was in the tournament, the university was among several teams that proudly reported a players’ graduation rate of 100 percent. And that meant, of course, that its graduation rates for African-American players was 100 percent as well.
So hats off to Bruce Weber. Although he couldn’t inspire sufficient on-court player performance to keep his job, while abiding by NCAA rules (not a given these days) he recruited academically-capable athletes and encouraged them to succeed in the classroom as well as in the arena. They earned a coveted U. of I. degree, opening the door to a useful and satisfying life whether or not that includes professional basketball.
That happy success suggests another way to look at college athletics, at least in schools like Illinois that graduate a high percentage of their athletes. In addition to inspiring the enthusiasm and support of Illinois alumni and fans, in addition to publicizing the school and attracting applicants from well beyond the Midwest, in addition to generating an estimated $47 million annual economic stimulus in the Urbana-Champaign area, the program actually is enabling hundreds of young men and women to acquire what colleges are supposed to provide: an education. Mazel tov! (Incidentally, graduation rates for women basketball players run considerably higher than for men.)
Weber’s replacement, just announced Thursday, will be John Groce of Ohio University, whose players’ graduation rates were 79 percent overall and 67 percent for African-Americans, well short of Bruce Weber’s record at Illinois. Let’s hope he considers graduation rates as important as winning, for his starting salary of $1.4 million a year will be even higher than Weber’s closing price. Paradoxically, the new president of the University of Illinois, Robert Easter, will be paid $450,000 a year, substantially less than the outgoing Hogan.
At the same time, when you consider the $70 million cost, is Illinois getting a satisfactory return on this huge investment? Should the calculus recognize the severe restrictions constraining public-entity spending these days? I’ll leave that metaphysical judgment to others.
It’s worth noting, however, that some smaller colleges that don’t have big TV contracts and that award scholarships on the basis of need rather than muscle, nevertheless field far more intercollegiate teams—as many as 35 or 36—than the headline football and basketball schools, while graduating nearly all their athletes in all those sports.
So, all things considered, it’s still fair to ask: Does the immense spending on athletics by our colleges and universities—not to mention the media—along with lousy graduation rates for athletes generally and African-Americans in particular, send the wrong signal to our young people about the priorities of colleges and our society overall? Especially now, in the face of the nation’s overriding need to improve education and educational access at all levels, there can be only one answer.
It’s worth pondering as you watch the Final Four this weekend.
The answer is clearly yes.
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JOE MATHEWSON is an assistant professor of journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University. Formerly a Supreme Court correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and a practicing lawyer in Chicago, Mathewson is the author of “The Supreme Court and the Press: The Indispensable Conflict,” published by the Northwestern University Press.
STORY ART: Main image re-mixed from photo courtesy jeffk/cc. GSR graphic done in-house.
*CORRECTION (3/31/2012): Recently resigned U. of I. president Michael J. Hogan’s annual salary was $651,000, not $851,000 as originally published.