Taxing the Athletic Department: A Bad Idea

Autzen Stadium 8, Michigan State, 14, KC

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

The University of Oregon Senate has proposed a 3 % “tax” on the Athletic Department (A.D.)  to help fund general University expenses. ESPN’s Ted Miller likens reluctance to go along with this idea to a 12-year-old child actor getting $10 million and not wanting to share it with his parents while living under the same roof.

It is true that the A. D. falls under the overall University structure and certainly benefits from the relationship. Beyond that, Ted’s analogy breaks down in a hurry. Why the University Senate’s proposal to go after A. D. funds is a bad, bad, bad idea is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1.  The University’s History of Abuse. If the University is the parent and the Athletic Department is the child, then this family has a history of child abuse. When Autzen Stadium first opened in 1967, all students had to do to get into a game was flash their student body cards. This was because a generous portion of the student body funds supported the AD.

UO Athletic Director Rob Mullens latest challenge is to keep UO pickpockets at bay.

from video

UO Athletic Director Rob Mullens’ latest challenge is to keep UO pickpockets at bay.

By 1969, in true socialist fashion, the Student Senate had the idea that student body funds dedicated to supporting athletics were “benefiting the few” and should be curtailed. I personally attend a Student Senate session and testified that if they believe all funds should be shared equally, then instead of helping finance a marching band, they should just buy every student a kazoo.

Mental giants that they were, they virtually took my advice, because it was only a few years later that Oregon had no marching band. So much for the pursuit of excellence. So much for creating anything special. The 15,000 who bothered to show up for football games presented by a vastly under-financed athletic department were treated to a small amplified rock group belting out “Mighty Oregon” over the field speakers — while the Ducks’ football team got belted by whatever other team showed up to play. And I never did get my kazoo.

The Student Senate, along with most other potential University supporters, basically told the A. D., “Kid, you’re on your own.” And it was at a time when the A. D. truly was not ready to be on its own. As a result of decreased support — and the passage of Title IX, which created the financial demand of equal opportunity for women’s sports — the A.D.  was forced to drop swimming, gymnastics and wrestling (that I know of) as sports — as well as field fairly pathetic teams across the board.

The Oregon State Legislature is home to tightwad funding of education and athletics.

The Oregon State Legislature is home to tightwad funding of education and athletics.

The State Legislature has treated the Athletic Department no better. According to a recent article in the Register Guard, the UO Athletic Department gets a measly 2 % of its support from the University — compared to a national average of 11 %.

But of course the State Legislature’s lack of support isn’t just for Oregon athletics. It stretches to the entire University. Of the 62 members of the prestigious American Association of Universities, the University of Oregon ranks dead last in state funding. This endangers the UO’s continued membership in the organization and may eventually lead the school to become a completely private institution.

So, admittedly — due to the State Legislature placing little value on education — the University is in a tight spot financially, and looking toward the lucrative athletics may on the surface appear to be an attractive solution.

The problem, though, is that the University’s overall annual budget is $905 million and with the athletic budget at only about one-tenth of that amount, there is a real limit to how much the University could suck out of the A.D. without destroying it, as it was nearly destroyed in the 1970s. It is simple math that $3 million means a lot more to a $90 million budget than it does to a $900 million budget. About ten times as much. But this is probably more obvious to the faculty’s accounting department than it is to Sociology Assistant Professor Michael Dreiling, an outspoken proponent of the idea.

2.  The Athletic Department already benefits the University financially. And it does so in so many ways that quantification of the value is impossible. Certainly, the A.D. has brought the University national exposure that attracts profitable out-of-state students — and with the pathetic funding that the State Legislature provides the University, out-of-state students’ tuition is an important part of the financial equation.

The Athletic Department attracts millions of dollars to the University annually.

The Athletic Department pays and attracts millions of dollars to the University annually.

By my calculations, the A.D. pays the University about $11 million per year in scholarships — and 84 % of the scholarship athletes are out-of-state (= profitable). Add to this the money that walk-ons and athletes receiving partial scholarships pay in out-of-state tuition. Then add the out-of-state tuition from non-athlete students who are drawn to the U of O because of athletics.

Then add the money donated to the University by people whose ties have been strengthened because of Oregon Athletics. It’s probably impossible to put a number on this, but the Knight Library comes to mind, for starters.

Taking money out of the Athletic Department will only weaken its ability to continue to provide these benefits to the University. Picture only 15,000 people showing up for a game at Autzen — as was the case in the past. What effect would that have on the financial benefits described above?

3.  Whatever happened to pursuit of excellence as a goal? Certainly some control over athletic expenditures to keep up in the arms race is in order, and this would be a good topic for the NCAA to address so that all are affected equally. But making an athletic department serve as a profit center for its university would only compound the problem, because it leads to the idea that only “profitable” sports should be sponsored.

Ashton Eaton, the Worlds Greatest Athlete, compliments of the UO Athletic Department.

from video

Ashton Eaton, the World’s Greatest Athlete, compliments of the UO Athletic Department.

In an era when the U.S. is becoming more obese and couch potato-ish by the day, we need the focus on physical excellence. A well-rounded slate of intercollegiate sports providing both opportunity and inspiration is part of the solution.

The NCAA sponsors 23 different sports, most of them for both men and women. Oregon fields teams in only seven sports for men and eleven for women — and that’s counting tumbling and sand volleyball, which aren’t on the NCAA’s list. That’s leaving a lot of opportunity for promoting athletics on the table.

Now that the A.D. is back on its feet financially — and this did not happen because of valuable input from sociology professors — it is in a position to start promoting athletic excellence in swimming, water polo, gymnastics, wrestling, men’s volleyball and soccer…. the list goes on. And in doing so it would broaden its promotion of athletic ideals and provide opportunities to a more diverse group of athletes.

The root of the University of Oregon’s financial problem isn’t the Athletic Department, which already adds to the University’s financial success immeasurably. The problem is tightwad funding by the State Legislature. The idea that the A. D. should have its throat cut to make up for the Legislature’s  failure is not the same as expecting a twelve-year-old movie star to share the wealth. It’s more like leeching off your grown children — who succeeded in spite of everything you did — when you could darn well take care of yourself.

Top photo by Kevin Cline

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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • sven schmeer

    Great article. Tell the libtards to shove it. They don’t get our donated money. Or any other money earmarked for the athletic department. Fire the sociology “prof” while your at it.

  • Adam

    This is ridiculous. The university subsidizes the athletics department and students are required to pay athletics fees for the athletics department. The highest paid public official in the state of Oregon is Mark Helfrich. The athletics department is sucking money away from the general university. Studies have shown that athletics donations come at the expense of general university donations. I love Oregon football, but the education and well-being of the students is much more important.

    • Mike Merrell

      Adam/Guest —

      Do not think me unconcerned about academics. I was a walk-on athletically when I attended the UO Robert Clark Honors College on academic scholarships. One of my sons also attended the Honors College on academic scholarships.

      The UO subsidizes athletics at the rate of 2 % of the athletic budget, compared to a national average of 11 %. Why do you think universities subsidize athletics at all? Maybe because it adds something to the college experience and is a good marketing tool for the university?

      State funding for the UO has actually decreased over the past ten years while the number of students has increased and inflation has crept along. As mentioned in the article, state funding for UO is DEAD LAST among AAU universities.

      FYI, the State of Oregon’s annual budget is about $30 billion. So instead of looking for another $3 million out of a $30 billion budget (one ten-thousandth of the budget), you think it’s a better idea to look to cut it out of a $90 million budget (3 % of the budget) from a department that is competing in a highly competitive environment?

      I’m all for better funding for education. It’s just that cutting significant money away from a department that has demonstrated an ability to get the most out of its budget is generally a bad idea for any venture — especially when the “parent” of the group (the State Legislature) is failing miserably to fulfill its responsibility.

      • adam

        Absolutely the state should fund education better. I think that saying that UO only subsidizes athletics at 2% compared to the average of 11% is a bit off track. We should not strive to be average, we should strive to be the best.

        My main concern is that I think the athletics department has gained a bit too much power and is too much of a focus. For example, the basketball rape scandal from last year, the university only looked out for the basketball team, rather than the life of one of it’s students. And the fact that when students protested the influence of Nike a few years ago Phil Knight threatened to pull donations and the university shut the protests down immediately. These are symptoms of the larger problem that the focus is solely on the success of the athletics department rather than the success of the university as a whole.

        I support taxing the athletics department (or at least removing the subsidies and student fees to pay for it) because maybe then the university will have money to pay graduate students enough that they don’t need to go on strike, and they might start to pay instructors more than the minimum wage. Somebody with a PhD should not make the minimum wage.

        I just think the university has lost its way a little bit and this move is an attempt to bring the focus back to the students. I am sorry for calling you out yesterday, I should have been a bit less aggressive with my wording. I have been a bit ashamed of my university recently and I was disappointed to see this site that I view as a connection to Oregon (I now live out of state) supporting things that I feel are bad for the general direction of the university.

  • Guest

    I am disappointed in Fishduck for publishing such a biased article and showing no concern for the greater public good the university provides!

    • Adam…I completely stand behind this article. Note that the writer and I put our name out there…unlike you who attempted to convey your message twice by pretending to be a second commenter. (I can see your IP address)

      Do you really need deception to make your point? What does that say about it and you?

      • adam

        Sorry, I wasn’t trying to hide and post a second comment, I was just frustrated that I felt like a site I had loved is pushing things that aren’t good for the state of Oregon and I didn’t want to give my email. It was just habit, I have always posted as a guest in the past

      • adam

        I am also a little alarmed that the both of you jumped all over my comments but not the guy who said something that is actually offensive. (libtards)