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More welfare for college athletics

USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton, left, leads a group of quarterbacks during Utah State University football team practice { dow}, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan.
USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton, left, leads a group of quarterbacks during Utah State University football team practice { dow}, Aug. 5, 2014, in Logan.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

The Utah Legislature, led by a true-blue Aggie senator/head cheerleader, recently gave $1.5 million to Utah State’s athletic program (read: football), and predictably they did it for all the old reasons.

Economic development? Check.

Keeping up with the Joneses? Check.

Correcting a competitive disadvantage? Check.

Blah, blah, blah. When have we ever heard any of this before? Only every time a school builds a new athletic complex or someone wants public funding for a stadium.

What’s wrong with giving the Aggies’ $1.5 million? Everything. The Legislature missed on this one. In football terms, they were the Seattle Seahawks at the goal line.

The expenditure was facilitated by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, the Republican senator from Logan who is an alumnus of Utah State and also, ta-dum, chairman of the executive appropriations committee. He included the money for the Aggies in the state budget and lobbied for its support.

Go, team!

Well, it doesn’t matter which school’s football team got the money. What does matter: There are more important things on which to spend money. Students and taxpayers are already forced to subsidize school athletic teams through student fees and taxes; now the Legislature is pouring more tax money into the bottomless pit of athletics and even throwing in a little extra. The Business, Economic Development and Labor budget subcommittee recommended $750,000 for USU — an amount Hillyard said would have been suitable. Instead, the Legislature doubled it.

Most students just want an education, and they’re taking out loans or holding down jobs to do so. What does an athletic team have to do with that? As for taxpayers, gas tax and property taxes are going up — and so is the cost of football players.

In January, the NCAA approved stipends for athletes that go beyond school expenses. Hillyard justified the $1.5M “investment” in USU athletics by saying the Aggies had to compete with other schools that are paying the stipends.

Bottom line: Athletes demanded a raise and the Legislature gave it to them, even though we can’t afford it. This should be a law: Publicly funded universities cannot pay stipends to athletes until their football and basketball programs operate in the black. Only about half of FBS schools and 10 percent of athletic departments turn a profit, thanks to Title IX, the economy and the skyrocketing costs of college athletics. They are subsidized — or, if you prefer, they are on welfare.

The nation’s schools should be hit with a 15-yard penalty for mixed up priorities. What does it say about our country that in most states the highest paid public employee is a basketball or football coach? Or this: The Knight Commission reported in 2010 schools spent $91,936 per athlete, compared to $13,628 per student. In 2010, USA Today reported that 64 percent of the athletic departments at Utah State and Weber State are subsidized, and 24 percent at Utah.

Hillyard noted that the Wyoming Legislature had given its university’s football team $4 million and that other states were doing the same thing. That sounds a lot like what your teenager says when he wants to do something he shouldn’t — Everybody’s doing it.

It’s exactly this sort of reasoning that has launched the arms race that is underway in college football and basketball, with schools all over the country spending billions on athletic facilities in a very expensive game of one-upmanship. Utah is no exception. No sooner had the University of Utah built a $32 million football facility than it launched a fundraising campaign to build a $36 million basketball facility. Utah State has a new, $10 million basketball/volleyball facility.

To sell the latest expenditure to the Legislature, Hillyard used the old tried-and-not-necessarily-true sales pitch: economic development. You know how it goes — the $1.5 million will build good teams and good teams are good for the economy, good for hotels, restaurants, stores, etc. This line of reasoning has been used for decades to suck more money out of the public to pay for college and professional teams, but there has never been any proof that such promises are realized. For every report that says these expenditures are cost-effective, there are several more that say they aren’t. It’s like paying a dollar to get 50 cents in return.

No one can argue that college and professional athletic teams have value that are difficult to put a price tag on — i.e., community pride, public relations for the school, donations. But at what point do we say enough is enough?

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: