Time to hit the books

September 02, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The college football season began before most college classes did. First things first.

There is a plan -- adored by fans, but not yet by university and athletic conferences' officials -- to extend the season with a 16-team playoff culminating in a national championship game that promoters say would generate $3 billion over eight years.

Fan interest, measured by television audiences, in post-season bowl games has declined over the past decade, while college basketball's playoff -- "March Madness" -- has become so successful that the National Collegiate Athletic Association is reportedly negotiating a $3 billion to $4 billion (the number of years is unsettled) extension of its current seven-year, $1.73 billion contract with CBS.

Still, last season's bowl games -- more than one-third of the 112 Division I-A teams played in one -- did generate $140 million for distribution to universities. Many academic officials are skeptical about a football playoff for the wrong reasons.

They are saying "Show me the money," not "Enough is enough." This, even though the profits -- when there are any -- generated by athletics, meaning football and basketball, usually stay within the athletic department.

Roger G. Noll, a Stanford University economist, argues that only about 36 Division I schools compete at a level that earns almost constant television exposure.

For them, annual football profits can exceed $10 million. But such profits materialize only if there are substantial donations for athletic scholarships and facilities. And "several studies have concluded that athletics has essentially no effect on contributions to the school outside the athletics programs."

IRS's suite retreat

Some of those programs recently had a near-death experience with the Internal Revenue Service, which was considering eliminating its rule that allows renters of luxury suites at college football stadiums and basketball arenas to deduct 80 percent of the cost. Suites, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, are the fastest growing source of revenue for athletic departments.

The IRS came to its senses as Nebraska's senators reportedly were about to proceed with legislation to protect the deductibility.

From Vanderbilt University's Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt and Athletic Director Todd Turner comes a proposed new structure of incentives to combat declining graduation rates among athletes. (For example, 40 percent of Division I male basketball players -- the athletes with the worst graduation rates -- graduate in six years or less.) The plan would penalize teams for the academic failures of their athletes. When an athlete failed academically, his team would have one fewer scholarship to offer until the athlete's class graduates. So if a sophomore football player failed academically, his team would be limited to 84 rather than 85 scholarships for the next two years. (That might seem sufficient, considering the team has only 11 players on the field at a time, but until the 1970s scholarships were unlimited and some schools awarded 130.)

Although athletic directors in the Southeastern Conference, which includes Vanderbilt, oppose the plan, in June SEC presidents voted for it, 9-0. (Florida's and Tennessee's were not present; Arkansas' abstained.)

Incentives for good grades

At the University of Minnesota, where under the previous basketball coach players received improper academic help (e.g., papers written for them), the new coach's contract calls for a $25,000 bonus any year the team has a collective 2.8 grade-point average. Such incentive clauses are becoming common in coaches' contracts.

Some contracts contain less admirable incentives. Last winter, Auburn University hired football coach Tommy Tuberville away from Mississippi for between $750,000 and $900,000, the actual sum depending on the team's performance -- not in the classroom but on the field. He is to get $50,000, if the program simply is not an outlaw (does not violate NCAA rules for five years) and $100,000 if the team wins the national championship.

Joe Paterno, who last Saturday began his 50th season at Penn State (his 34th as head coach), has won two national championships, has been to 29 bowl games, has won 19 of them, is the fourth winningest coach in Division I-A history. His program has never been sanctioned by the NCAA. He has consistently regretted the NCAA's 1972 decision to make freshmen eligible for intercollegiate play.

Now, Mr. Paterno is not your average coach. He met his future wife at a Leslie Fiedler lecture and wooed her while reading Camus' "The Stranger" on the beach. The $26.5 million addition to the Penn State library will bear his name.

He understands that with the fall season, spring practice and strength training all year, jumping from high school into university athletics and academics simultaneously is a challenge few young people can meet satisfactorily. So, first things first.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 9/02/99

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