By Bryan O'Keefe
As most people know, I am a rather avid Pennsylvania sports fan – just this past weekend, I spent a good part of Saturday watching the Penn State/Indiana football game and Sunday evening I was parked in front of the television again, this time for the Steelers/Broncos game. In addition to my affection for the Nittany Lions and the Steelers, I also follow George Washington University basketball (my alma mater) and have been a season ticket holder since graduation. So, I come to this blog posting with no particular animus towards sports in general – quite the contrary.
Never the less, the Wall Street Journal had an excellent piece on Friday detailing the excesses surrounding the Ohio State football program and athletics department. Most of the details would be expected from an elite Big 10 program, but some even surprised me – for example, the athletics department has some sort of exercise equipment that even a professional sports team said was out of their league. Furthermore, the total budget for the athletics department is an astounding $109 million dollars.
The story defends the program somewhat, with the claim that most of the extravagance is funded by alumni donations. Others have told me that Ohio State deserves credit because its athletic department is self-sufficient and does not draw on general university resources. Those are points well-taken.
But the story misses a major topic: namely that those same alumni donations that help fund the program are subsidized by taxpayers. Donors receive nice tax deductions for their support of these programs, so, in essence, all of us are helping to fund today’s collegiate sport excesses.
Our friend Wick Sloane wrote a paper a couple of months ago which touched on this subject – why are we always griping about the lack of student loans, grants, etc. when we allow donations to sports stadiums to be tax deductible? Is that the proper role of the tax code? Should donors lose part of their tax deduction if they donate to the stadium instead of say, the school library? Instead of just blindly increasing loan amounts, maybe we should tinker with the tax deduction for donations to athletic programs, so any new loans or grants would at least be revenue neutral.
I also think this story makes it painfully clear that we need a new model for collegiate sports in general. The day of athletes being students first and competitors second – especially in the high level basketball and football programs – is over. (It still does exist when you get into the more obscure sports like fencing, but they are not really the problem here) Maybe instead of treating athletics as we do now, we should force universities to spin them off as separate businesses. Let them raise capital and actually pay their players. These are just ideas that we should be seriously considering in the future.
I certainly don’t have all of the answers for this problem, but something seems seriously wrong when we spend most of our time working on how to make the educational component of college (the reason we go to college in the first place) more affordable and productive and yet thousands of alumni donors across the country are getting hefty tax breaks for putting their names on stadiums.
One final note – I know I am picking on Ohio State here – that has nothing to do with the fact that the Buckeyes do in fact play Penn State this weekend. (I would love to see Penn State pull the upset) Ohio State just had the misfortune of being profiled for the Journal. I am sure that the same situation exists at Penn State and many other big-time college football and basketball programs.