A survey of university presidents has concluded that college sports in the so-called Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I, is financially "indefensible and unsustainable" in its present form and there is no consensus for a solution. But leaders of the Knight Commission, commemorating the watchdog organization's 20th anniversary with Monday's announcement of their findings, expressed confidence that the study will convince presidents there must be change.
The commission has spent the past year interviewing university presidents and compiling College Sports 101, a primer on the economic landscape of college athletics. A series of follow-up recommendations will be put forward by the commission in the spring.
"The data generated is eye-opening and quite troubling," said William E. (Brit) Kirwan, University of Maryland chancellor and co-chair of the commission. Kirwan said athletic expenditures are increasing three to four times faster than expenditures in academic programs, while 80 percent of FBS schools are losing money, with an average loss of $10 million per school. And the wealthiest athletic departments are producing 14 times more revenue than those at the other end of the spectrum that are struggling to keep up.
The greatest concern among college presidents, in considering how to rein in expenses, said Knight co-chair R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University, "is coaching salaries." Turner noted that 95 of the 119 FBS school presidents participated in the survey and 57 of them agreed to follow-up interviews.
In the process, Turner said, there was an 80 percent recognition of the need for reform and 75 percent agreement that athletics presented unique problems at a time when universities are faced with drastic budget constraints. He also said presidents had "little confidence" that the athletic conferences or the NCAA could affect change.
Yet, while only 25 percent believed major college sports are sustainable on the national level, 75 percent felt current athletic programs at their own institutions are sustainable. "The presidents," Turner said, "tend to see the grass is greener on their own side of the fence."
The commission's interviews also found "a cultural divide between athletics and academics," the belief that athletes are seen as occupying a place of privilege on campus. Eighty-five percent of the presidents said salaries for football and basketball coaches are "excessive," and roughly the same number said greater transparency is necessary regarding athletic department finances.
Still, Turner said, presidents often argued for the value of athletics as "the front porch of institutions," bringing positive publicity that resulted in more donors and increased admissions. Commission members agreed that, while they thought their work had convinced presidents change was inevitable, it will take years.