Doug Robinson: Athletic arms race is out of control

Published: Monday, May 12 2014 6:15 p.m. MDT

Officials of the University of Utah, members of the Huntsman family and Spence Eccles symbolically break ground Monday, May 5, 2014 on the new Jon M. and Karen Huntsman basketball facility.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Did you hear the latest from the western front of the college athletics arms race? All is not quiet.

This week, Utah State University will officially open the new Wayne Estes Center, a 32,000-square-foot, $9.7 million building that will serve the basketball and volleyball teams.

The University of Utah is breaking ground for a new $36 million basketball facility that will serve both the men’s and women’s teams. This comes less than a year after the school completed a $32 million football center.

The arms race is raging on every front of college athletics. New football facilities are being built at Oregon, Kentucky, Minnesota, UCLA, Northwestern, Colorado State, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Ohio State and Notre Dame universities, among others. New basketball facilities are being built at Kansas, Kansas State, Oregon State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, VCU, Houston, Nebraska and San Diego State. Next year there will be another long list of schools doing the same thing. In recent years, nearly every school in Utah has spent millions on some variation of the theme.

Each time a new athletic facility is proposed or completed, the coaches and athletic department officials trot out the same drivel about how new facilities will attract recruits and help them compete with their rivals. To wit:

Stew Morrill, the USU basketball coach, said this about the new basketball facility: “Both from a playing and recruiting standpoint, this is a great upgrade for Utah State basketball.” And women’s basketball coach Jerry Finkbeiner: “I am very excited about the (new facility) for what it brings to our recruiting.” Volleyball coach Grayson DuBose: “Recruits want to see that you are moving forward as a program and this will go a long way to show them and their families that Utah State is committed to have a first-class athletics program.”

At the unveiling of the University of Utah’s football facility, Athletic Director Chris Hill told reporters, “We are now competing with the biggest of the bigs.” At the groundbreaking ceremony for the basketball facility, coach Larry Krystkowiak said the new basketball facility gives the Utes a better chance of “drawing future recruits.”

Let’s interrupt the gushfest for a moment. This is financial insanity, an arms race that has no end in sight, with each school trying to outdo the other or at least keep up with the Joneses.

USU built its indoor football practice facility two decades ago (and BYU and Utah followed their lead years later). Beginning in 2008, USU also has built a football complex ($12.5 million), a strength and conditioning center ($6.4 million) and now a basketball-volleyball gym ($9.7 million). The school is also remodeling its weight room for other sports and in February the board of trustees approved a $30 million upgrade of the football stadium, with suites and a new and improved press box — a facility that will be used about six times annually.

When did universities — supposedly institutions of higher education — become athletic corporations? When did their priorities become the big business of football and basketball? You can probably trace it back to TV and the big money that TV throws at schools. It doesn’t even matter if fans attend the games as long as the colleges have TV contracts.

It’s foolishness. Schools are spending millions and millions of dollars to facilitate a small number of students. For the price of nearly $10 million, the Wayne Estes Center will largely benefit about 40 athletes and their coaches. The men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams will practice there, sparing them the occasional inconvenience of practicing in the physical education building when the Spectrum is being used for other things.

Meanwhile, USU needs a biology and science building, a modern language lab and a diagnostics building for education that could advance the study of autism and children with disabilities.

Not that the Aggies should be singled out; they are simply doing what every other university is doing. They are all caught up in the arms race.

Universities will argue that private donations funded many of the construction projects for athletics and that such donations would not have been made if not for athletics. Nonsense. In most cases, the university presidents have great sway with big donors and can direct their funding to what they consider priorities.

How does the funding of a relatively small group of “student-athletes” help most students who attend school simply to get an education? Increasingly, they are incurring debt and struggling to pay for education, and, besides seeing millions of dollars poured into athletics, they are forced to fund a portion of college athletic programs through student fees.

Universities have become football corporations with a school attached. The Knight Commission reported that football schools spent $91,936 per athlete in 2010, compared to $13,628 per student.

And after all of that — after all the expenditures and the TV money and the new facilities — only about half of the 125 Football Bowl Subdivision schools are profitable. The rest are on welfare, subsidized by student fees, taxpayers and donors.

The new facilities and the athletic arms race are nothing to cheer about. They are the byproduct of misplaced priorities.

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

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