Is College Basketball What the ‘Public Good’ Looks Like?

This article appeared on Washington Examiner on September 28, 2017.
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For me, nothing in sports beats college basketball, especially when you get to the madness of March, right down to the pure sap that is the "One Shining Moment" video montage. But let's face it: As the bribery scandal now rocking the sport typifies, there is nothing remotely akin to promoting the "public good" — the justification for taxpayer-subsidized higher education — in big-time college basketball and football.

For those institutions playing at the highest competitive levels, and others aspiring to those levels, money and sports prestige — not academics, or advancing knowledge — seem to be the only goals that matter.

Top coaches make millions annually. Rick Pitino, for whom this latest-but-not-only hoops scandal will almost certainly end his coaching career, signed a contract just two years ago giving him nearly $51 million over 10 years, plus big potential bonuses. Bruce Pearl, the head coach of Auburn University whose assistant, former NBA and Auburn star Chuck Person, was arrested in the FBI bribery probe, signed a contract in 2014 for $15 million over 6 years plus numerous possible bonuses. This after Pearl was punished by the NCAA for violations while coaching at the University of Tennessee.

It's not just the coaches raking in the big bucks. The dollars to pay them are largely generated by the huge contracts that networks such as ESPN and Fox Sports (profit-making entities) pay to show the games that fill their advertisement-funded air time. In July of this year, the Big Ten, consisting of fourteen schools, announced deals reportedly totaling $2.64 billion over 6-years with CBS, ESPN, and Fox to broadcast football and basketball contests. Meanwhile, salaries of the commissioners of the "Power 5" conferences, those playing the highest level of college football, jumped from an average of $541,000 in 2004 to $2.6 million in 2014.

What about the "student-athletes," to use the NCAA's term? Especially in the revenue sports, the word order is wrong. NCAA surveys indicate that in-season athletes spend roughly 40 hours per week on their sport, outstripping academic time.

That's more accurately called "having a job."

Of course, in the cases of major college football and basketball players, the goal is often to move on to big, professional sports paydays, so their self-interest is hardly sacrificed in the arrangement.

All of this might be fine if it were just people freely choosing to spend their time and hard-earned money on sports and somehow calling it the "public good." But it isn't.

For one thing, a lot of the attraction to the college grid and hardwood is allegiance to large, highly-subsidized state schools, which tend to represent their states and get big followings as a result. They also bring in lots of students with their relatively low, taxpayer-subsidized tuition prices. It is not a coincidence that the Power 5 tends to be dominated by such institutions.

More egregious is that the tax code treats these programs as if they really are about bettering society. For one thing, schools don't pay taxes on basketball and football revenue, though the money does sometimes help pay for non-revenue sports. They are also sometimes recipients of taxpayer funds to build or enhance athletics facilities. The University of Maryland has transformed Cole Fieldhouse into a football practice facility, and is undertaking other football and sports medicine improvements with $40 million in taxpayer funds, among other pots of dough.

What really takes the cake, however, is that to procure season tickets, schools often require fans to make "donations" to the athletics department, in addition to paying for the ticket itself. But don't worry — it's tax deductible! For center court, lower-level seats at Louisville, you'll donate $2,500 per seat. For Maryland football 50-yard line tickets you'll charitably contribute $2,200. And what's the federal tax code justification for making donations deductible? Universities are charitable organizations serving the public good!

To be fair, the whole notion that higher education is a selfless undertaking is dubious. Students typically want degrees to enhance their lifetime earnings, professors get paid to study and teach subjects they love, and they all get to use the newest on-campus climbing walls and water parks. Self-interest abounds on the quad, and the idea that it should be treated otherwise could use re-examination.

That said, there is no clearer example of colleges not pursuing the "public good" than big-time sports. The latest revelations just make pretending otherwise that much harder.