Fuzzy Math

The NCAA's claim about the money that goes to student athletes doesn't add up.

The NCAA's claim about the money that goes to student athletes doesn't add up.

Pop quiz: When the National Collegiate Athletic Association claims that more than 90 cents of every dollar the organization generates goes to schools to support college athletes, said support includes:

A) Head coach performance bonuses
B) Assistant coach car stipends
C) Athletic department staff country club memberships
D) All of the above

This being the command economy and semantic Orwellian hellscape of amateur NCAA sports, the answer, of course, is “D.” Not that you’d know it by following the association’s official social media propaganda arm Twitter feed. Earlier this week, the NCAA tweeted — humblebragged, actually, assuming that’s still a thing — the following:

The embedded link directs to the association’s financial “about us” webpage, which makes the same 90 cents-plus claim. And that sounds wonderful. Charitable. Downright magnanimous. Certainly reason to reject the share-the-wealth arguments of those greedy O’Bannon lawsuit plaintiffs and union-agitatin’ Northwestern University football players and whoever picks the cover stories for Time magazine. To borrow from Patrick Ewing’s long-ago NBA lockout logic: Sure, the NCAA and its member schools make a lot of money off athletes. But they spend a lot of money on athletes, too. Over 90 percent of the total take. DYK, y’all!

Thing is, the 90 percent support claim is the product of creative accounting. And by “creative,” I mean the bookkeeping equivalent of duct-taping a waffle cone to a donkey’s forehead, then claiming you’ve discovered a real-life unicorn.

Let’s break it down.

According to USA TODAY Sports, the NCAA took in nearly $872 million in revenue in the 2012 fiscal year, mostly from television and marketing rights. About $504 million of that was distributed to member schools and conferences; another $115 million was spent on association-wide programs; more than $38 million went to management and general spending; and the organization reported a $72 million surplus.

Add $504 and $115 million and guess what? You’re only at 71 percent of total NCAA revenue generated — which last I checked, is less than 90 percent. Still, let’s assume that the association is telling a half-truth, and that 90 percent of its revenue does go to schools. Does all of that money actually support college athletes?

Hardly.

In a paid-for expert witness report filed in the O’Bannon case late last year, economist Lauren Stiroh defends the NCAA’s position by arguing that college athletes already receive a significant portion of the money made by college sports. She cites scholarships, of course, but then goes on to include the following as “substantial non-monetary benefits”:

… expenditures on the salaries and benefits of coaches and trainers, game expenses. Athletic departments also make expenditures on facilities, team travel, equipment and supplies, medical care, and recruiting, among other categories …

By Stiroh’s definition, the 94 University of Nebraska athletic department staffers who reportedly receive complementary cars and/or memberships to country, golf and health clubs are doing so in support of … college athletes. This tee time isn’t for me, son. It’s for you! Of course, you’ll be in morning film study while I’m putzing around in a gold cart. But still. And Stiroh isn’t being sneaky — as she makes clear in a footnote, she is simply following the same standard accounting definitions used by the NCAA and its member schools, which basically considers all athletic department spending to be in direct support of college athletes, including “housing allowances” and “country club memberships.”

When Northwestern football players are bussed to a road game instead of having to buy their own Greyhound tickets and/or carpool and front gas money, that’s a benefit.

When Jim Harbaugh builds a $70,000 office bathroom while coaching Stanford University football, that’s a benefit.

When the University of Oklahoma employs compliance officers to police the precise amount of gratis pasta eaten by players at a graduation banquet, that’s a benefit.

Needless to say, the 90 cents claim is absurd. As is the logic behind it. Without doubt, the NCAA and its member schools spend a lot of money to support college athletes — but they also spend just as much, if not more, to support the entire gold-plated edifice of college athletics. The two are not the same, any more than your office installing ergonomic desks and a higher-speed Internet connection is the same as getting more vacation days or a bump in your paycheck. For the NCAA to boast otherwise is disingenuous.

Only don’t take my word for it. Ask the association. In a NCAA-produced video describing college sports finances, a helpful narrator explains a screen-sized pie chart:

… So, where does that money go? Last year, NCAA Division I and II institutions provided more than $2.3 billion in direct financial aid to their student-athletes, what most people call athletic scholarships. Another $2.9 billion went into items that directly benefitted the student-athlete experience. Expenses like travel, equipment, facilities, and academic services. So approximately half of all expenditures go to direct benefits for student athletes (bold added)

Wait. Approximately half? What happened to over 90 cents of every dollar generated?

… The rest of the spending goes to compensation for head and assistant coaches, administrative compensation, and other operating expenses …

Oh. Right. But wait! By the NCAA’s ever-shifting standards, most of that counts, too. Like amateurism itself, spending on college athletes is whatever the association says it is, and a depressing reminder of the real golden rule: Those who have the gold, rule.

4 thoughts on “Fuzzy Math

  1. I have never believed the NCAA was as ” lilly white ” as they want you to think. But, they are not alone. At my age 67, when organizations go out of their way to tell you all they do for someone else…………. BE WARE.

    And, one other final thing, if you think the NCAA treats all schools the same for infractions think again.

  2. Pingback: Hruby Outlines NCAA’s “Fuzzy Math” | League of Fans

  3. A series of weak assertions by someone who seems angry at something.

    An obvious example: “Support” and “directly benefit” are obviously different things, and it makes perfect sense to use either or both, depending on context, and it’s only logical that the two numbers are not the same.

  4. You might make a case that a few college athletes get some benefits from participating in NCAA sports. All this takes place in and around institutions of “higher learning”. But you can’t produce TV programs that sell ads for huge money about a thesis on early English poetry. Nor can you do much with cancer research programs (probably financed by drug company).
    So a huge industry has evolved out of the public’s vicarious enjoyment of young people playing games. That includes sports writers, economists, coaches, trainers, equipment companies, commentators, TV staff, stadium builders, transportation charters; the list goes on.
    Enjoy it now. When “peak oil” really kicks in this will all disappear.