College athletics have become a financial and ethical burden

The situation of athletic deficits at the University of Cincinnati is a case study for how off track athletics have become at the nation’s colleges and universities and, in fact, have become destructive to the academic missions.

The University of Cincinnati athletic department set a record deficit in 2019 by losing more than $30.4 million in 2019–2020, according to the most recent NCAA financial report.

This record deficit was brought to our attention when UC Athletic Director John Cunningham stated to the Enquirer on January 26 that the department had earned a surplus. Other athletic directors in the past and across the country have also tried to claim as revenue the money the university must pump into the program to cover the losses. That is not accurate accounting because it is not revenue. That money is a subsidy. As faculty and students at the university, the record always need to be corrected for the public to know the truth.

We think an appropriate deficit would be what the athletic department ran in 2005 when it lost about $5.6 million. Since then, however, driven by the upside-down priorities of the Board of Trustees and the administration under various presidents, the department has become a money pit with ever expanding deficits. As the News Record, the student newspaper, reported in April, the UC Athletic Department has lost more than $250 million over the last 12 years and, with this year’s totals, is likely $300 million in the hole. Although these trends of irresponsible spending are rampant across higher ed, it is possible that no other university in the country has lost so much money over a similar time span. While this deficit has ballooned, between 2010–2018 UC spending on instruction declined by 6.6 percent per student while spending on research dropped over 26 percent per student, according to study on university spending recently completed jointly by the Faculty Senate and the AAUP.

According to Cleveland Plain-Dealer calculations, a student attending UC over the last 4 years spends nearly $4,000 subsidizing athletics through student tuition and fees. If you take that figure and consider what that grows to as part of a larger student loan over a 10- or 15-year term, you are talking about a real financial burden. Further, only about 15 percent of the department’s budget is for scholarships.

No academic department at the university would be allowed to lose so much money. Currently, the university is imposing an 8 percent “reallocation” across all the university’s colleges because of concerns related to Covid-19. That means taking the revenue generated in the colleges and the classrooms to redirect it elsewhere, cutting budgets, and allowing important faculty and staff positions to go unfilled.

What if, instead, we redirected some of the athletic subsidy to the academic mission and focused on the education of students? The administration and trustees are always talking about the need for innovation and impact. Now is their chance.

The university could build a reputation for itself for academic excellence and opportunity by taking $20 million from the athletic department deficit and instead spending it to create access for students. $20 million could be used to give nearly 450 students a tuition-free education at the university for four years — and UC could do that every year.

Over a decade, thousands of Ohio students could benefit by graduating with far less debt from UC. That would be innovative and have a real and positive impact on the lives of students and their families.

Importantly, this doesn’t mean eliminating athletics. It means forcing the department to live within its means (which academic departments need to do) and dramatically reducing the amount of money drained away from education and research.

The Covid-19 crisis presents an awesome opportunity for positive reform across the nation. Let’s not allow that chance slip away.

History professor at the University of Cincinnati, active in the American Association of University Professors, union advocate, Cold War historian.