Phillip Tutor: Gurgling cash on Alabama’s campuses
May 02, 2013 | 5391 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville State University fields 14 athletics teams. Last year, the athletic department received more than $9 million in a wide array of subsidies to figuratively pay its bills.

Worth it?

UAB’s athletic department lost more than $18 million last year, not counting subsidies.

Worth it?

Troy lost nearly $12 million on athletics in 2012, not counting subsidies.

Worth it?

Call this what it is: A vicious minefield of debate between those who say universities should concentrate solely on academics and those who say athletics are a vital part of the university culture, whatever the cost. This is conservatives vs. liberals; atheists vs. evangelicals; academics vs. jocks; Genesis vs. Big Bang.

Athletics-wise, Alabama’s campuses are divided between the haves and have-nots — Alabama and Auburn, and then everyone else. Football is so lucrative in Auburn and Tuscaloosa that their fiscal realities aren’t real world; they have ginormous stadiums and conference affiliations that pay out large checks and boosters with deep pockets. Their coaches make millions. Their fans drop serious coin just for the right to buy season tickets.

That’s not the real world.

Nick Saban, the coach at Alabama, earns an average of $5.6 million a year.

Bill Clark, the new coach at Jacksonville State, makes a base salary of $175,000, which is less than every assistant coach at Alabama.

Fiscally, the comparison is laughable, if not insulting.

In these days of conversations about small government and reduced spending, I can’t resist the urge to consider the alternatives when marinated in the slash-and-burn political logic of people such as Del Marsh, the omnipotent king of the Alabama Senate, and Gov. Robert Bentley. They and the most conservative of their GOP cohorts want state departments to live within their means. Public universities and their teams, by virtue of being funded in part by state funds, fall loosely, if not uncomfortably, into that category.

Thus, it’s conceivable — though unlikely — that the Marsh-Bentley logic would say schools like Jacksonville State should only field teams it can pay for. Based on data released this week by the NCAA and reported by AL.com, it’s safe to assume the Gamecocks’ offerings would be greatly reduced — if not totally eliminated — should the play-what-you-can-pay-for mentality catch on.

Remove the $9 million worth of subsidies JSU received (which amounts to 75 percent of its 2012 revenue, AL.com reported). Count up the available remaining money. What sports are left?

Football?

Anything else?

You OK with that, JSU fans?

The ugly side of this is what makes the blood boil in people with Ph.D.s. College professors are many things — smart, opinionated, politically active, well-read — but, in most cases, rich they aren’t. It varies from school to school, by age, experience and field, but let’s just say college professors at Alabama colleges are more everyman than Warren Buffett.

At JSU, the average salary for a full-time professor in 2011 was $62,949. Younger or less-experienced professors — assistants and associates — can earn much less. When compared with Calhoun County’s per-capita income (about $18,000), that’s still a handsome paycheck. But considering the amount of expensive graduate-level schooling one has to endure to earn a Ph.D. and land a tenure-track job, well, it’s not a financial utopia.

Combine that with other levels of frustration — funding for academic programs, funding for research projects, funding for new facilities — and Ph.D.s who rail about the dough spent on sports, revenue-producing or not, have a point. A huge one.

The type of fiscal equality they seek on Alabama’s campuses doesn’t exist.

Back and forth these arguments go, and the result is always the same: sports wins. I wholeheartedly believe in the campus experience, and sports are a part of that. A campus that doesn’t offer a wide array of activities — academics, drama, concerts, festivals and, yes, athletics — isn’t much of a campus. And argue against it all you want, but if you don’t think a healthy, competitive athletic department isn’t welcomed advertising for a school’s admissions department, well, you’re sadly mistaken.

Remember when JSU beat Ole Miss in football in 2010? Trust me, JSU couldn’t afford the amount of national advertising it received on ESPN and countless websites, just because the Gamecocks upset a then-pitiful team from Mississippi. It was invaluable.

The answer, sadly, isn’t appealing to those who pine for some sense of fiscal equality.

Universities exist for several reasons,

all of them academic. Athletic programs are add-ons that are both (a.) out of control, spending-wise, and (b.) entrenched in popularity and culture. Schools occasionally shutter a few teams to curb spending, but it’s hardly a trend. And you’re crazy if you think Alabama’s universities would ever whittle down their teams to only those that make money.

This leaves us back to our original question.

Are cash-gurgling athletic departments worth it?

Dollar for dollar, no. But gut them — or remove them — and see what happens.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.
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