Q&A with the Publisher, July 2, 2015
Q: You spent much of your journalistic career investigating the finances of industries like the nonprofit sector and the farm subsidies program. What drew you to examine the college football industry?
A: I’ve always been interested in economics and business and using that as a framework to look at interesting or unusual subjects, like the extraordinary growth of nonprofits and their impact on the Treasury, or the buying and selling of blood, which I wrote about in the late 1980s at the Philadelphia Inquirer and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. I was an athlete in high school and college so I already had an interest in sports generally. Then in the late 1990s I became curious about the intersection of money and college sports, and particularly about how big money, which is to say, big football, was impacting the cultures of some of our largest and most prestigious universities and challenging their very brand. Any business – and make no mistake, college football is a business – that grows by 200 or 300 percent in a decade, after inflation, is going to produce a good story or two. This one was no different that way.
Most of the headlines surrounding college football are scandals involving boosters, players taking gifts or making money on autographs, and manipulations of the academic systems. Does the financial structure of these programs lead—or even encourage-- these abuses?
A: Most of the books and articles that have been written about college football tend to either focus on scandals or the “glory” of the games. From the start, I was determined not write about scandals because I believed that missed the point. To my way of thinking, scandals are symbols, not causes. The real – and far more interesting – issue was the financial model underpinning college football and the failure of college presidents to control that model as it spun wildly out of control. The extraordinary financial model of college football now drives everything in college athletics at the elite football schools. It determines how many sports the schools offer, and which sports; how many scholarships are handed out; how big a salary the head coach gets, and so on. The fact that boosters sometimes overstep the line or coaches and academic advisers encourage football players to cheat really isn’t very surprising in this context. In the end, everyone is concerned about keeping the money flowing, which means keeping football healthy and the players on the field.
In BILLION DOLLAR BALL, you examine the way season tickets packages are sold, and the heavy premiums fans pay for seat licenses and VIP seating, with price tags at tens of thousands of dollars. With the amount of seating being sold at a premium, do current students feel alienated? Does it affect current student attendance at games, and if so aren’t the schools worried that disillusioned students won’t be willing to pay these premiums when they become alumni?
A: Ha. I think students stopped being the primary focus at the elite football programs, the schools in the five super conferences that control the money, a long time ago. Sure, schools still set aside a small percentage of their seats for students, and the students show up, at least for the big games. But when the football schools figured out that they could charge their best fans a premium, improbably known as a “seat donation,” even though there is nothing voluntary about the payment, everything changed. The focus no longer was on the students; it was on the alumni and fans with deep pockets who could afford to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars above and beyond the price of the tickets to secure the best seats. Today, as many as half to three-quarters of the seats at the elite football programs include a surcharge, or seat donation. In the aggregate, these fees add up to hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-free revenue for the athletic departments.
What was the most surprising thing you learned researching BILLION DOLLAR BALL?
A: There were a couple of things. One was the startling amount of money that schools spend on so-called Academic Support to keep football players and other athletes eligible to play. In effect, they have created exclusive charter schools just for football players with separate academic advisers, tutors, counselors, reading and writing specialists, learning disability experts and psychologists – none of which is offered to other students. The University of Oregon, for example, spent $42 million constructing its lavish center for athletes, and spends millions more each year on staffs. That’s just one school! The schools argue that this is part of their commitment to the athletes. Fair enough. But they spend far more on their football players than on their smartest, most ambitious students, who often receive paltry scholarships, worth a fraction of a football scholarship, and don’t have lavish academic support centers. Not to pick on Oregon again, but the students in their Honors College are housed in a 75-year-old building that was constructed in the Great Depression. In some ways, it feels like the schools have their priorities scrambled.
Many pundits argue that since collegiate football is essentially a for-profit business players should be financially compensated beyond scholarships and living stipends. Do you think that college players should be paid to play?
A: I’m less sympathetic to the pay-the-players argument than many others. For one, once you start paying the players it creates a new round of problems. Are the players now employees or are they still students? If they are employees, can you still claim that football is primarily educational, and not a business? If it is a business, then shouldn’t you have to pay taxes on that business? That is no small matter. Under the current system, Congress (improbably) views college football as part of the schools’ educational mission. That means the schools pay no taxes on the growing millions they collect from television, seat donation schemes, tickets, corporate advertising, and so on. More to the point, paying the players only makes sense if you embrace the existing financial model, which has lead to spiraling, out of control costs and a distorted, football-at-all-costs purpose. Paying the players feels good because, after all, the players are helping to generate all of those millions for the athletic departments. But it doesn’t really level the playing field, and it certainly isn’t reform. It not only embraces the current financial model, it places even more stress on it, pressuring schools to come up with even more money. Also, and here I’ll get into trouble, no doubt, the players already get a lot. If they actually go to class, they will graduate debt-free, while most students now graduate tens of thousands of dollars in debt. That is no small advantage. And then there are all of the other perks, including the tutors, academic advisers, and so forth.
Many of the athletic directors you spoke to defend the massive expenditures of their programs by saying the revenue and spending benefits all of their athletes, not just the football and basketball players. Did you find that to be true? How do the athletes of the smaller programs feel about the bigger sports?
A: The current financial model does act like a form of insurance for the other, poorer sports that don’t make much money. That’s fine as far as it goes. But is that really a justification for operating an overtly commercial business – big time football – with all of the excesses that come with it? Football is also extraordinarily expensive, in large part because of all of those lavish salaries and the growing cost of the back office operations required to keep football functioning. In many cases, football alone costs more than all of the other sports combined! There are very few incentives to keep costs down in the current financial model and, really, no such thing as an efficient college football program. As many athletic directors told me, they spend every penny they take in. In part, this is because of the ill-fated decision by the presidents to set up their athletic departments as stand-alone businesses, leaving them to raise and spend as much as they take in. This basically led to athletic departments turning into entertainment divisions, extensions of ESPN. Why not haul the athletic departments back inside the university and make them operate under the same rules and budgetary restrictions as the rest of the university? If the presidents truly believe that sports are educational, why do they appear so embarrassed to use university dollars to pay for their teams? That is perhaps the most fundamental contradiction of the current model.
In the book you elaborate on the various ways organizations have tried to fix the current state of collegiate football with admittedly little success. How would you change “Big Time” college football?
A: I didn’t set out to change college football and have no illusions about the current model. The presidents recently said they feel powerless to reform big football and other sports, which is a surprising and powerful statement, after they clamored for years for more authority. So, if they are unwilling or unable to haul their athletic departments back in house, there aren’t a lot of promising solutions. The IRS has tried and failed to tax some of the revenue generated by big time programs. In each case, it was either beaten back by Congress or gave in to the powerful football lobby. Members of Congress occasionally make noise about doing something (for example, they could link the tax-exemption for college football to some meaningful metric like graduation), but they rarely do anything. Politically, it probably makes no sense for the Senators from Texas, Alabama or Nebraska to take on college football, right? The NCAA is basically hapless. Real change, if it ever comes, will probably evolve from fewer and fewer high school students playing football because of fears of concussions, and younger generations of fans exhibiting less and less loyalty to the sport. We are already seeing some of that as college students forego games entirely, or leave games at halftime, in favor of other forms of entertainment. Those cell phones and IPads are powerful distractions.
One of the most interesting stories in BILLION DOLLAR BALL is the surprising link between college football and women’s rowing. Can you explain that?
A: Sure. In the 1990s, athletic directors at the elite football schools realized they had a problem. Football had become so big and rich it was threatening to throw their schools out of compliance with Title IX, the 1972 legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in education. The schools had far more football players -- up to 130 or 140 players per squad -- than women had on any of their teams. The athletic directors needed a sport for women that could offset the big football numbers. The answer they came up with was women’s rowing. It was relatively cheap. All you needed was some water, a coach or two and some boats. You could pack those boats with women athletes and soon enough you were back in compliance with Title IX. As improbable as it sounds, this is how women’s rowing became the sport of choice in the 1990s and saved college football. In a few years, the number of women’s rowing programs (and women rowers) doubled. I saw this while examining data for the big football schools. Every time I looked at one of the football schools, I discovered a large women’s rowing program with 100, 150 or even 200 women rowers. For women, this wasn’t a bad thing. They got a new, challenging sport. But at the same time it created a new problem: Where were the schools supposed to find all of those rowers – especially in such unlikely rowing locations as Kansas, Oklahoma and Alabama? The answer was anywhere they could: standing line at class sign-up or orientation; walking around campus, or playing volleyball. As one women’s rowing coach told me, recruiting women’s rowers is like working a bar scene. You just have to get your courage up and go for it.
Are you planning to continue to cover the evolution of the college football industry as it deals with the possible unionization of players and the continuing changes is conferences about playoffs? If not, what do you plan to investigate next?
A: I think I am done with college football for a while. I am currently working on a book about what happens, or happened, after Hurricane Sandy. It is really a book about the future of America’s coasts and how people live by the water in an era of rising sea levels, more frequent and more powerful storms, and eroding beaches. Who pays for the risk? Should we subsidize people building larger and more expensive second homes at the beach? Or is it time to let those homes fall into the surf – can we even do that politically? This is not a small question. We have crowded our coasts with trillions of dollars worth of vacation homes and investment properties that the federal government subsidizes in multiple ways, including billions in disaster relief after storms like Sandy. The narrative after Sandy was that we have to build back as quickly as possible; that we were Stronger than the Storm. Yet, in so many ways, Sandy wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a mistake! A massive, decades-long failure of planning and imagination. Now, many beach towns say they want to build back smarter, more resilient communities. I am exploring what that means through compelling personal stories, and if it is even possible.