One more unwelcome twist for Towson sports

Our view: O'Malley's effort to save Towson's baseball team may achieve the right result, but it sets a damaging precedent

April 02, 2013

By dumping $300,000 in taxpayer funds on Towson University's baseball team, Gov. Martin O'Malley has temporarily solved one problem and created a multitude of others. The frustration that led Mr. O'Malley to intervene is understandable. But his proposal to use a supplemental appropriation to buy the team two more years sets a dangerous precedent while failing to address any of the problems in Towson's athletics department that got the university into the unwelcome position of cutting two men's sports in the first place.

A bad precedent

In Maryland, public universities are prohibited from using state funds to support their athletic programs. Sports are funded through student fees, private donations, sales of tickets and merchandise, sponsorships and other ancillary revenues. There's a good reason for that. We don't want universities to skimp on professors or computer labs or books for their libraries to fund the football team.

The same logic calls for the governor not to fund operating expenses of a college team from the state budget. The $300,000 Mr. O'Malley has pledged to use to support baseball in each of the next two years amounts to little in the state budget, but it begs the question nonetheless of why we should spend the money on that rather than, say, services for the disabled or health care for the poor.

Moreover, once we start funding a sport on one campus, where do we stop? When the University of Maryland decided to cut seven athletics teams last summer, the governor didn't lift a finger. Why now and not then? And if the governor could find money to save the baseball team, why not soccer? Why should he be the one to decide which sport to save and which to cancel?

A public relations fiasco

Mr. O'Malley's involvement in the issue began two weeks ago at the Board of Public Works when Comptroller Peter Franchot raised questions about how the announcement that the sports would be cut was handled. Indeed, although the possibility that the sports would be cut was no surprise, the official announcement appears to have been made abruptly and with little sensitivity to those involved. Mr. O'Malley, in a rare bit of agreement with Mr. Franchot, said he was troubled by the circumstances as well, and the two of them voted to delay approval of an unrelated contract until Towson President Maravene Loeschke could come explain herself.

It's more than just the public relations fiasco that needed explaining.

The university has couched its decision to cut baseball and soccer in terms of its three goals for the athletic department: compliance with Title IX, the law mandating gender equity in college athletics; fiscal sustainability; and competitiveness for the school's teams. In practice, the order of those goals has been reversed. The university spent money to increase competitiveness of its big-money sports, its budget became unsustainable, and now it is wrapping the solution in the cloak of Title IX.

Budget woes

The athletic department's budget was in surplus as recently as three years ago, but in an effort to boost the competitiveness of its football and men's basketball teams, the school decided under a previous administration to spend heavily on new coaches and make other investments. The effort worked, as those two perennially losing teams have seen sudden reversals in fortune. But the timing was bad. For years, the department had been able to count on enrollment growth and steady increases in athletic fees. But amid a budget crunch, the state stopped giving the school money to expand its enrollment, which meant that growth in student athletic fee revenue also stopped. Suddenly, a surplus turned to a deficit.

The athletic department balanced its budget by using reserve funds for the last two years, but that is clearly not a sustainable solution. Ms. Loeschke made the policy decision that the student athletic fee should not be raised for the 2013-2014 academic year. At $798 per year, the fee is second-highest in the University System of Maryland (behind the University of Maryland-Baltimore County).

Title IX

And Towson does have a Title IX problem, as is easily the case for a school that has both a football team and a 61 percent to 39 percent female-to-male ratio. But it is a problem that could be solved by measures less drastic than cutting two men's teams, a practice that is disfavored as a means to comply with Title IX. After all, doing so does not expand opportunity for women athletes, which was the point of the law in the first place.

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