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Doug Robinson: Don't pay players 'till college football is off welfare

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 10:35 a.m. MDT

If you follow sports at all, you know there is much discussion about fixing the many ills of college football, among them the way athletes are treated.

While the game generates billions of dollars in revenues for TV, universities and shoe companies, the players not only are paid nothing beyond a scholarship, they aren’t even allowed to participate in the free enterprise system by making money off their own sweat and name, whether it’s with an autograph or the sale of a jersey.

Wait, Robinson, you’re in the wrong section. This is the B section, not D.

Stick with me. This is rated G for general audience. Now where was I?

I’ll come to the point: Time magazine recently published a cover story titled, “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes.” I have lobbied for the same thing over in the sports section, but I have a better suggestion and one that has received no mention: Before they pay college athletes, why doesn’t college football get off welfare first?

Why are students subsidizing the big business of college football?

Why are chemistry and theater majors — who may or may not care about football or attend games and actually must pay to attend school either by taking out loans or working nights — required to pay for the game through student fees?

In short, why are students paying other students to play football, especially when tuition costs and student debt are soaring?

Forbes magazine recently published a list of college football’s biggest moneymakers. Texas ranks No. 1 with revenues of $96 million and a profit of $71 million. Then came Notre Dame ($72M/$47M), Penn State ($73M/$53M), LSU ($69M/$47M) and Michigan ($70M/$47M). The tenth-ranked program, Oklahoma, checked in revenues of $59 million and a profit of $36 million. These aren’t schools; they are big corporations with schools attached.

In truth, only about half of FBS schools are profitable in football and only about 10 percent of athletic departments are profitable. The demands of Title IX and the economy and the escalating costs of keeping up with the Floridas have made it unsustainable.

But whether a school is profitable or not, they are almost all subsidized by students, private donors and taxpayers.

How out of whack is college football and sports in general? The Knight Commission reported that football schools spent $91,936 per athlete in 2010, compared to $13,628 per student.

And by the way, what does football have to do with educating students? Since when is it the mission of a university to create an NFL farm team?

In 2010, USA Today reported that 50 percent of the University of Wyoming athletic department is subsidized; at Washington State it's 28.8 percent; North Carolina 11 percent; New Mexico 41 percent; Colorado 25.5 percent. As for local public schools: University of Utah 24.6 percent; Utah State and Weber State 64 percent; Utah Valley University 89 percent; Southern Utah 78 percent.

The costs keep spiraling, both to operate the program or attend the games. There was a lot of excitement among fans and students when Utah joined the Pac 12 Conference. You might reasonably assume that the new league’s fat TV deals and the increased revenues would reduce ticket prices. Not so. The Utes had to fix themselves up for the big time, with a new softball diamond, a new track and a $32 million, 120,000-square-foot football facility. Ticket prices went up — and don’t expect them to come down even after the Utes settle into their new Pac-12 life.

But don’t single out the Utes. They are caught up in football’s version of the arms race. New football facilities — locker rooms, training rooms, player lounges, coaches offices, weight room, stadiums, indoor and outdoor practice fields, Jumbotrons — are de rigueur to compete for recruits and win games.

For instance, since 2009, Indiana has made annual improvements in football facilities at a cost of $50 million. "It's a little bit like [the amusement park] Kings Island," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN. "Every year, you've got to have a new ride to show people you're serious."

According to USA Today, Cincinnati froze tuition this year but will pay more than $80 million — much of it borrowed — to expand its football stadium. Miami has cut hundreds of jobs in recent years and cut $50 million from its budget, but the athletic director wants to raise $80 million from donors for athletic scholarships and build new facilities.

Nebraska recently spent $63 million to expand its stadium; Wisconsin has been spending $86 million on a three-phase project to improve football facilities; Iowa is spending $57 million to improve football facilities. USC spent $70 million last year on football facilities. At Oklahoma State, they boasted that one of the school's private donors, Boone Pickens, felt the school needed a special shower head for the new locker room, at a cost of $700 each. They ordered 60 of them. Oh, and the locker room includes flat-screen TVs, a pool table, a kitchenette, plush recliners, marble staircases, wood floors and ionized air. It was money donated by a rich booster, but it’s money that could have been used elsewhere.

Universities have lost their way in pursuit of football glory and riches, most of them at the expense of the average student. Before they talk about paying players, college football programs should live within their means and get off welfare. Either that or universities should return to their real purpose: The business of education.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com

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