A sellout crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium during an NCAA football game between the Auburn Tigers and the Ole Miss Rebels. (Scott Donaldson/AP)
Columnist

The philosophy of athletic directors at our large public universities these days seems to be “Why pay less?”

It’s time to make them answer to Congress for their spending habits.

Over the last decade, the collective income of the top 48 college sports powers has virtually doubled, to about $4.5 billion dollars tax-free, yet the majority of them still manage to lose money. Who is running these places? Marcus Prinz von Anhalt and the Duke of Saxony?

For years, athletic directors have styled themselves as CEO-types and moaned about the difficulties of managing costs. But a Washington Post project published earlier this week shows that these so-called executives are about as fiscally responsible as Gabor sisters serving sevruga in chinchilla capes. The truth is, their deficits aren’t a necessity. They’re a choice.


Throughout The Post’s findings is the distinctly acrid smell of books cooking. The ledgers show that there is never enough money to fully comply with Title IX or cover the true cost of a scholarship but always enough to pay themselves more or to buy a new toy. At Auburn, there’s a $17 million deficit, yet the school just bought a new $13.9 million scoreboard.

The median athletic department in a Power Five conference has seen earnings balloon to $93.1 million thanks in part to massive new TV contracts, yet 28 of 52 state schools are in the red, including seven in the Pacific-12 and a half-dozen in the ACC, led by Virginia at a whopping negative-$17 million. The reason is not complicated: It’s sheer excess and improper self-reward by athletic directors. Over the past decade, pay for administrators has risen by $300 million.

Essentially, they’re paying themselves for losing money.

At Florida State, salaries for non-coaching administrators rose from $7.7 million to $15 million. That’s the raise the Seminoles athletic staff gave itself for running up a deficit of $2 million while presiding over an academic fraud scandal involving 10 teams and mishandling criminal allegations against football players. This is a state school and a recipient of federal funds.

The financial reports starkly illustrate that the biggest expense in college sports isn’t Title IX or scholarships or even skyrocketing coaches salaries. It’s mismanagement.

What’s more, you’re picking up the tab for them. To help cover their excesses and shortfalls, a number of schools have jacked up mandatory fees. Students paid $114 million worth in 2014.

For too long, college athletic directors and their pipe-tamping bosses in the chancellors’ offices have pretended that NCAA reform is difficult, if not impossible. It isn’t. Reform is simple. Athletic departments should be subjected to the same budgetary constraints as any other university department — by law. All Congress has to do is threaten their federal funding and tax-exempt status, and you will see plenty of reform, presto. The chair of an engineering department is not permitted to spend indiscriminately, so why should athletic directors be able to — especially when they siphon university money away from other departments to cover their overdrafts?


As matters stand, athletic departments aren’t answerable to anyone, budgeted separately from the university and almost completely unregulated. Their only real oversight comes from high-dollar donors. The reason for this is that years ago college presidents tried to wash their hands by allowing them to become stand-alone entities that raise and spend funds however they wish. Author Gilbert Gaul, in his new book “Billion Dollar Ball,” likens them to hedge funds or entertainment divisions rather than academic entities. As one Texas administrator put it to Gaul, “We eat what we kill.”

The lack of oversight has allowed athletic directors to flat-out lie to the public about their fiscal practices. Every time a school eliminates a sport, it blames the rising cost of scholarships or Title IX. But a growing body of independent research, including The Post’s, shows the real story. Example: Rutgers is $36.3 million in the red. In 2006, it pled necessity in cutting a half-dozen sports. Yet at the same time, Rutgers was spending $175,000 on hotel rooms for six home football games — more than the entire budget of the eliminated men’s tennis team.

A commonly recited untruth by athletic directors is that the money they “invest” in revenue-producing football and basketball creates opportunities in other sports, especially for women. In fact, at Football Bowl Subdivision schools, just 28 percent of all money spent on athletics goes to women’s sports, and schools with the biggest athletic budgets often offer less than much smaller schools. Texas, for instance, has an athletic budget of $118 million, but it has fewer varsity athletes than even Princeton. What it does have is mahogany-paneled football offices. While Princeton fields 36 varsity sports, Oregon offers just 18 — but it has a football locker room with 60-inch plasma TVs, Xboxes and a state-of-the-art “no-squint” lighting system.

These people won’t control their spending voluntarily. You think Auburn administrators are going to eliminate the 15 athletic department jobs they created in the past decade that pay more than $100,000 each annually? You think Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart is going to cut away the extra $150,000 a year he makes for “media appearances” (When is the last time anyone asked to see an athletic director on TV?) to save a non-revenue team?

This is not a small matter. Chronic profligacy has badly compromised the athletic scholarship, which is second only to the G.I Bill in giving educations to those who otherwise wouldn’t have it. One in five athletes is a first-generation college student. History shows that athletic directors can always find more money for themselves — but can’t ever quite find the money to do the right thing.

Last week, at a Big 12 panel discussion, conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said as much. Bowlsby was on the first NCAA committee that looked at covering the true costs of scholarships — 28 years ago. It took that long to drag administrators into agreeing to cover the real cost of attendance: room, board, books and tuition.

And even then, it happened only because they were pressured into it by a combination of scandal, class-action lawsuits and a players’ movement to unionize.

The reckless excess of athletic departments was summed up by former Rutgers president Richard McCormick. There is, he says, a constant “competitive pressure toward unbridled spending.”

It’s going to take force to control that spending. Real legislative force.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.