NCAA: Revenue vs. Non-Revenue Sports

Maybe it was having to get up before 5 a.m.; maybe it was the hour-long bus ride to Philadelphia International in 14 degree temps with no heat; maybe it was that my oatmeal exploded in the microwave (again).  But something about reading “Why Joel Maturi Needs to Go” from the Daily Gopher Blog (via Row2k.com) while waiting to board my flight yesterday made me want to write a little response.

The post is a rant from a blogger known only as “Jeffrick”, who seems to be a snarky regular on the Daily Gopher blog (from the University of Minnesota–where my younger sister is currently a student athlete).  I have no idea who he is or what his background in athletics is.  I do know, however, that his approach to commentary and journalism is mostly to incite controversy by being offensive–a fair strategy to get clicks and generate interest, but at what expense?  Because this particular foray into sports editorial is aimed at the lowly “non-revenue” collegiate sports teams (aka my sport, and others like it)–dangerously striking blows at their credibility and very place in a collegiate athletic department for their inability to generate massive bucks for the University.  Moreover, that the non-revenue sports are the reason that the glory and honor of the “big three” Minnesota teams (Men’s Football, Men’s Basketball, and Men’s Hockey) are deteriorating.  The current AD at Minnesota, Joel Maturi, he claims has divided his time too equally among all of his athletes (instead of coddling the big boys) and thus the plight of the “big three”.  His suggested solution to this:

[Minnesota should only have:] Football, men’s and women’s hoops, men’s and women’s hockey, wrestling, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, and track. 12 sports total, 6 men’s, 6 women’s. That’s it. The rest are completely and totally optional, and if their existence is hurting your Big 3 revenue sports, then they should be cut. Doesn’t mean those kids can’t compete on club teams or intramurals […] it just means they don’t have the right to participate in varsity sports that nobody cares about, and that drain your budget.  (emphasis added)

[…]playing collegiate athletics is a privilege, not a right, especially for kids in non-revenue sports. When your sport makes bubkis for the university, you don’t have a right to whine and complain if it gets taken away. A very small minority does not get to tell the vast majority what to do. You can still play your sport that noone but you cares about: it’s called a club team, and in this little scenario, you raise your own funds to play. That way, the only people who care about the sport are the ones paying for it. What a novel freaking concept!

First of all, let’s not deny that collegiate athletic departments need money in order to operate.  Believe me, I have seen enough rowing teams shut down over the past year across the country to make me painfully aware of that.  I recognize that “the little guys” are going to be the first ones to go when the football team starts losing (makes sense right?).

But let’s take a look at the bigger picture (–wait, there’s a bigger picture than money!??) because I think we owe it to the student athletes to acknowledge that there is more at stake here than just a pissing contest between the big three and the little-everyone-else.  Because whether you like it or not, all athletes who are participating in NCAA athletics are there first and foremost to:  win an NCAA championship? …make money for the University? … impress alumni and supporters who don’t know what they’re talking about?  Sadly, no.  NCAA athletes are all at their respective universities to earn college degrees.  They’re there to study, to work hard, and give themselves the best possible chance to be successful adults when they leave their University.

So in a way, Jeffrick is right in saying that participating in collegiate athletics isn’t a right.  It’s a privilege.  But, it’s not just a privilege for cross country runners, tennis players, and rowers.  It’s a privilege for football players, basketball players and hockey players too, while they work towards their degrees.  One may even argue that playing NCAA sports is even more of a privilege for athletes who need a little “extra help” to even get admitted to the University with less-than-stellar GPAs and test scores.  No one deserves to be a student athlete; every single one of them has to earn it, and respect it by balancing their commitment to their team with their commitment to their degree work.  When looking in we have to remember that kids participating in NCAA sports are there with an incredible opportunity to earn degrees while getting to train and compete, and that our happiness as alums, supporters, or formers is so far down the list it’s not even funny.  Those kids are competing for themselves, not for you, and not for money. They are not, and never have been, professional athletes.  They should not be treated as such.  And if we on the outside had any respect whatsoever for the hours that they put in to do what they do–we would acknowledge that by keeping priorities straight (something that should be obvious, but apparently is not to people who were never student athletes). 
On that note, let’s take a look at how teams did with their degree progress at Minnesota this past year:

I suppose you’re not surprised to find that not a single one of the “big three” is on either list, and I would be willing to bet money that they weren’t #11 either.  And don’t tell me that they’re too busy being awesome at their sports and winning Big 10 Championships to study, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place.  So essentially, the big three are failing at both levels as NCAA athletes… and somehow that is the fault of non-revenue sport athletes?  Ahem.  Throwing money at a group of athletes who aren’t performing is not the answer (as non-revenue sports athletes know).  Work is.

As precious as the big three are to the financial integrity of an athletic department, you have to recognize that they are not always doing their part in order to maintain the moral, ethical and intellectual integrity of the department–elements of the student athlete experience that will far outlast a dollar sign–because people like Jeffrick continue to push away from the NCAA’s mission of providing a total student athlete experience:

  • The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
  • The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
  • The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.
  • The supporting role that intercollegiate athletics plays in the higher education mission and in enhancing the  sense of community and strengthening the identity of member institutions.
    (ncaa.org)

And how much further can we push away from that mission before the entire platform of collegiate athletics becomes corrupt?  Competition for the goal of personal betterment is as basic as it gets–it is simple, raw, and profoundly human.  It is a universal principle of athletics that has served as the foundation for all levels of competition–peewees to Olympians–since sport began.  It’s what continues to drive me to compete now as a United States Olympian, all thanks to my AD’s decision not to shank the “little guys” and let people like me continue to compete in collegiate athletics.  I walked on to my team with no experience, became an All American, won a World Championship, and graduated from college with two honors degrees debt-free.  
During that same time at Washington, our head football coach was fired for gambling, football players got picked up regularly for domestic assault and throwing things through windows, and one of my favorite memories:  an episode between two “big three” athletes in the full athlete dining hall which involved them throwing trays of food and breaking dishes, tearing their shirts off and threatening to kill each other.  I am sure that the football, basketball and hockey players at Minnesota would never ever behave that way, but I digress.

My point is that people on the outside of an athletic department can easily overlook the value of us “little guys” and our role in an athletic department because we’re not cutting huge checks every year from playing in the Joe-Shmo-Bowl.  We may not go on to play in the NBA, MLB, NFL or NHL for millions of dollars every year, but the “little guys” are the ones who are quiet, successful leaders who work thanklessly to represent ourselves and our school, even if “no one cares” but us.  We will go on to be successful professionals, and to make up the majority of your Olympic Team every four years.  And we are the ones who organize extensive alumni networks in order to create financial legacies for generations of non-revenue teams that will come after us.  And we will continue to do it with no thanks from you, Jeffrick.  Sport is too good, and too pure to be taken away from the student athletes who appreciate it, and the opportunities it affords, most.

My point is, you’re missing the point.

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

P.S.  If you still think the big three don’t have enough money because the little guys are stealing it all, I offer you a solution: http://www.giving.umn.edu/giving_opps/index.html

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13 responses to “NCAA: Revenue vs. Non-Revenue Sports

  1. Pretty please, please write a book. (-: Fit this into your future game-plan of things ta do. Love your voice and dynamic of change. I’m sure Adam has told you that I follow your blog. Love it!

    ps: my oatmeal explodes EVERY DAY. Crap.

    • Thanks Trish! Hopefully someday I will have done something cool enough to warrant writing a book about it. In the meantime, I enjoy the blog, and my faithful followers (you and my Mother). :D

  2. Thanks for your discuss on this issue. One of my vivid memories on this topic is at the UW Athletic Banquet the year you graduated. I loved how all the football players thanked not the coach–but the woman assigned to them to make sure they passed their classes. And anyone who has been in Minnesota for a while will remember the Jan Ganglehoff controversy. Ms. Ganglehoff apparently did the same sort of thing for the U of M.

  3. I enjoyed this post overall, however I’d like to make one comment regarding the links to articles alleging shameful acts by U of M student athletes. The preceding text cited: “I am sure that the football, basketball and hockey players at Minnesota would never ever behave that way, but I digress.”

    I was unable to find a link to any stories reporting a Gopher hockey player. =)

  4. edit: *the following text* not “the preceding text” (I changed the sentence and neglected to make that correction, hope it’s still readable).

    Be well.

  5. This is so great! Thanks for posting it. Good to hear from someone’s perspective who has actually lived it instead of angry fans.

    In response to people are arguing that it is a business. Not all departments in a business directly bring revenue in, but does that mean we should cut them? Imagine a business without an HR department…

    Also, without the Big Ten Network revenue, the football team might not even break even.

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  7. As a football athlete myself who carries a perfect 4.0 GPA in a science major of study, with aspirations to go to PT school, I’m hurt by this article. Academic success within the athletic department is a case by case issue. Perhaps at U of M the Big Three are stuggling, but at my school the Tennis Teams are consistently at the bottom of the GPA ranks. It all depends on the AD’s mission statement to push athletic success or academic success. I’m thankful for the opportunity I have been given to be a college athlete, as we all should be, but who are you to say that I don’t work just as hard for my degree. I get up early to go to weights. I stay late to watch film and study my opponent. And I have academic advisors who don’t make sure I just pass my classes but push me to be a better student in order to keep my career options open. It’s not your fault that your sport doesn’t generate money. It’s not my fault that my sport does. It’s simply the way it is. However, ALL of us are talented NCAA athletes that have been given a great opportunity. Shitting on the bigger sports using evidence that applies specifically to your school makes you appear ungrateful and not real smart.

    • Rod,
      I think you and I both know that comparing your experience as a member of a DI FCS (Division AA) football team is not quite in line with the argument I was making about athletes who compete in Big Three sports in the Big 10 or PAC 12.
      I was certainly not trying to diminish your student-athlete experience and -of course- there will always be exceptions, like you, to the status quo (just as there are surely rowers out there who struggle with academics). But when you are part of a team, exceptions don’t make the rule.

      I’m not totally sure how this post could have read as ungrateful–perhaps you missed the last line?
      What brings you to my blog?

      –MK

    • There certainly are exceptions such as yourself, Rod, who succeed both on and off the field. I think the point Megan is trying to make is more along the lines of D-I athletic programs in general. We’re all grateful for cash generating sports like football because they often support the smaller sports, but having the opportunity to be a student-athlete should be available to as many students as possible within the budget of the athletic department. Just because a program is under-performing, cutting programs to throw more money at the failing program is not usually the answer to the problem. Unfortunately, this happens at many D-I schools with smaller budgets that think this is the answer to their problems. A better solution would be to develop a high performing and tight knit alumni association of professional graduates who can donate generously. Gaining grateful and generous alumni starts with keeping the programs who perform just as well in the classroom as they do “on the field”.

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