Saturday, December 3, 2011

Maryland Athletics: The Gladiator Games in College Park

The University of Maryland recently released the findings of a special commission on the financial condition of athletics, which examined the business operations of the universities athletic department, and was charged with producing recommendations upon which President Wallace D Loh could choose to accept, or not. Put another way, “Thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, Loh could signal his choice. Ironically, this also was the role of the emperor in the gladiator days of Rome and it may not be a stretch to apply that same visual image to President Loh and Maryland athletics today.

In the days of the gladiator games in Rome, the competition was brutal, tougher than anything on what we refer to as the “gridiron” today. However, as tough as those competitors were, and for as much physical exertion the competitors put forth, instead of simply finishing off his opponent with one final plunge of the sword into his beaten opponent, the winning gladiator would stand over his fallen competitor and look upward at the royal box, for a signal, thumbs up or thumbs down. For it was not the gladiator himself that made the final decision, rather it was the emperor, the politico, who made the final decision about the fate of the fallen.

Thus, after weeks and months of examination in College Park --and by the way, we were led to believe that this was a tough and challenging exercise -- the investigation recommended administrative cutbacks and the elimination of up to eight varsity sports. The commission completed its assignment, and then looked upward to President Loh for the signal. With the sword drawn and pointed directly at those sports and their respective athletes, what was it going to be, thumbs up, or thumbs down?

Playing the role of Roman emperor, President Loh indicated thumbs down. That's it, cut the eight sports, let the coaches go and save the money, cancel the respective seasons!

But wait, the emperor was rotating his thumb up. Could this be, he was changing his mind?

As you read the report, their came the alternative that those sports which were targeted for cuts could be saved. If the alumni, former athletes or anyone otherwise specifically interested in those sports could raise enough money to support any of those teams for a period of eight years into the future--approximately $29M dollars for all sports, they could be restored, for now that is.

Stop collecting the uniforms, tell those coach they still has a job --if they can raise the money--, we've got games to play! It's as if the fallen gladiator gets up, dusts himself off and heads into the stands to start collecting gold coins to give to the emperor, on his behalf.

What just happened? What is going in college athletics? What is going on in College Park?

Without the changes called for by the commission, if the leadership of the university and athletics at Maryland did not act the report cites, the operating deficit for the sports program would grow to as much as $17M by 2017. President Loh referred to the findings of the commission recently as a “day of enormous sadness,” and went to point out the risks of inaction" puts at risk the entire Maryland athletics program." In part of his written response to the commissions report, Loh goes on to say, ..."In a time of constrained resources, we have to choose; should we have fewer programs so that they can be better supported and, hence, more likely to be successful at the highest level….?”

What the report should have said, however, was that across the board in college athletics, including in College Park, there is a failure of leadership and the list of failing leaders includes Coaches, Athletic Directors and most importantly, University Presidents. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a better time to act and clean up the hypocrisy and fiscal irresponsibility of college athletics on this country. In the case of the University of Maryland, it's as if they are too close to the Nation’s Capital and they have been infected by the inaction of our countries elected leaders and have caught the same incurable disease of "lack of courage".

When the special commission returned it's findings to President Loh recently, he should not have gone to his figurative balcony and given the ambiguous half thumbs down-up signal. Rather he should have communicated in no uncertain terms, "Go back and find more sports to cut, you’re work is not done.” That would be been the clear and courageous thing to do. You see, the University of Maryland does not have a problem with swimming, or water polo, or men’s tennis. No, Maryland like so many other schools has a money problem with football and basketball and they are trying to make tennis, swimming and water polo pay for it.

The problems with the “revenue producing sports” are simple; they are not producing enough revenue on their own. For example, Football is producing just $1.8M in revenue; just over half of what it did five years ago. Men’s basketball, in what was the signature sport with a highly paid alumnus, Gary Williams as Head Coach, generated $4.5M in fiscal year 2011,down from $6.8M five years ago. Moreover, The athletic program has been running a deficit for the last several years, a deficit that has been financed by student fees and state funds. According to a study by Indiana University's National Sports Journalism Center and USA Today, Maryland athletics receives nearly $14M dollars, or 25% of it’s total revenue, from subsidies, which include student fees and other direct and indirect dollars from the institution and state. This is an increase from 19% of total revenues in 2006. In comparison to its peer group of public institutions in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Maryland athletics receives the most subsidies, in term of total revenues. Folks, this trend line is going in the wrong direction.

It is important to know that the NCAA is partially negligent in this case. As part of it's mandate to schools that want to be in Division 1 at the highest level, requires those schools field 14 varsity sports. That is the minimum. When you sprinkle in the additional obligations that come with Title IX compliance, the make up of sports programs at major universities is a reflection of a bygone era, both in terms of policy and economics. Today, unlike in the early 1970’s, it’s not uncommon for females to make up more than half the campus population and opportunities for athletic participation and scholarship are plentiful. Economically, it’s time to allow schools to go below 14 sports to be considered a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) eligible school.

In fact, there are mixed messages being sent to the University community, including faculty, students, alumni and supporters in this most recent round introspection. The message is, "we have a deficit and we need to cut certain sports to bring our budget into balance". However, while the football and men’s basketball are the single most important drivers to profit and loss on the athletic books, there will be no real change there. Stay the course, coaches salaries keep going up, just win more games please. Message sent and received. Oh, and for those eight sports that were to be cut, raise enough private dollars and you can be restored. What the commission did was sanction a capital fundraising campaign for those fallen sports, more or less!

Maryland athletics, like so many other athletic departments at major institutions has a leadership and management problem. In the offices of athletics at Maryland you could shoot a cannon off, and not be in danger of hitting anyone that has a practical experience in sports business, marketing or the turnaround of a business that is in trouble. No, all open roles are filled either with someone from another, many times equally failing athletic department, or an alumnus associated with the school. The University has a financial problem that requires new thinking, the type that reduces the footprint for athletics, moves other sports to club status and sets a new course that others could follow. President Loh, however, as chosen to fall in line with the status quo. Legendary American General George S. Patton Jr. might have been referencing athletics at the University of Maryland when he said, “If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn't thinking

There was no reason for President Loh not to act decisively; he has the power to do that. The institutions that make up the NCAA made sure of that. The Knight Commission on College Athletics, commonly referred to as the Knight Commission was formed in 1989 and by 1991 had issued it's landmark report, "Keeping Faith with the Student Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics. Among other things, it called for "One-plus-three" model, in which the one, College Presidents, would run college athletics, taking power away from the Athletic Directors. The "three" goals of college athletics were identified as academic integrity, financial integrity and independent certification. It sounds simple right? Place the Presidents in charge, focus on academic and financial integrity and have independent verification.

Except, that's not what happened across the board in college athletics, and it's certainly not happening in College Park today. The President is in charge, but there is no evidence of financial integrity whatsoever.

President Loh and Athletic Director Kevin Anderson have abdicated their real responsibility in this case. Rather than putting the university and its athletic department on a new course, one of a smaller, more efficient and effective athletics department, they have responded in another way. Where there was opportunity to be aggressive, perhaps even innovative, their form of leadership seems to be one that strives to preserve their own future and their next job. For, if we know anything it’s this; no President, and certainly no Athletic Director, will get another high paying job in Division 1 athletics with a reputation for cutting sports at a major university. This is fundamentally wrong, and why Jack Welch could never work in college athletics.

Looking at Maryland athletics, like the gladiator games; after a long struggle, and with an arena of onlookers focused on the leader to signal, for now, the Emperor of College Park has signaled his decision, and it’s, a thumbs down….I mean up! Heck, for now, there seems to be no real decision, or real direction.

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