CRAWFORD | Challenges facing U of L are bigger than Schnatter vs. Jurich
The issues that the University of Louisville and its athletic department are working through are far larger than a spat between its athletic director and a major donor.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is not Papa John’s vs. Team Jurich. I’m not going there. Don’t even ask.
When word broke Thursday that John Schnatter had resigned from the University of Louisville Athletic Association board, I heard some Tom Jurich proponents proclaiming victory, whatever that is, in this bizarre non-exchange.
One day earlier, when acting president Dr. Greg Postel confirmed a greater oversight role for his office and the board of trustees over athletics, some who backed Schnatter’s comments called it a sign of his influence.
This is not Papa John’s vs. Team Jurich. Whether they like it or not, they all are on Team U of L. And right now, Team U of L is in a rough patch, with a $48 million university budget shortfall. Expect tension.
This is what people do in 2017 -- they take sides, then start flaming. That’s not the best policy. It’s not my policy, and I’ll show you why. Return with me to the long-ago days of February, 2016.
When then-president James Ramsey announced a self-imposed postseason ban for the basketball program, reaction was immediate and intense. People were hot. Before a game at the KFC Yum! Center the next night, a banner with the words “Ramsey is a Coward” hung on an adjacent building. Rick Pitino didn’t like the decision. Players didn’t like it.
I even wrote a column taking Ramsey to task not for the decision, but for not giving more details behind the reason for his decision. Details, by the way, that he wasn’t permitted to give. Details, in fact, that we still don’t have completely.
But today, considering everything we now know, who will raise their hand and tell me Ramsey did the wrong thing? Who thinks it would be fairer to have a postseason ban hanging over a 2017-18 team with even less to do with those original violations than the team that eventually was punished?
I didn’t think so. Say what you want about Ramsey given what subsequent reporting has revealed, but that move was the right move. Period.
So here we are again, with people putting Schnatter, who remains a U of L trustee, on blast because of things he said, indirectly, about Jurich and details they say he owes the public.
Maybe Schnatter has details and can’t give them. Maybe he has nothing. Maybe he should’ve withheld comment until he could’ve been more thorough – all right, maybe there’s no maybe about that. We all might’ve been better served by that. But maybe he’s so angry about something that he couldn’t help it – none of us is in a position to know.
Regardless, I need to see the whole picture before I start blasting away at people who have done a great deal for this community – whether it be Jurich or Schnatter. That’s not weakness. It’s responsibility. It’s not going to gain a lot of web hits. It should, however, eventually get at the truth.
Need more detail? All right. Senior associate athletic director Kevin Miller distributed a list at Thursday’s meeting of the U of L athletic association finance committee outlining support the university has provided to the athletic department in recent years. Included in that was $3.62 million for utilities payments for various athletic facilities in 2015-16.
This, frankly, was news to me. And I’ve been around for a while. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. That’s my fault. But it changes the optics, just a bit.
U of L’s athletic department has maintained over the years that despite a gender equity payment it gets from the university (for women’s scholarships in a few targeted sports) and some student fees and deprecation on facilities that the university writes off, its athletic program is basically self-sufficient financially.
But taking $3.62 million 2015-16, $3.006 million in 2014-15 and $3.72 million 2013-14, and likely more going all the way back to 2002 in the way of utilities payments on athletic facilities isn’t exactly self-sufficient. (NCAA reports don’t require that amount to be broken out separately in years before that.)
The athletic department counters with the following pages of Miller’s handout, showing how much it pays to the university in tuition, how much its athletes pay in tuition, how much band members and spirit squad members pay in tuition, and so forth. It says that in exchange for paying utilities, athletics allows the university to charge for student parking in its football stadium lots, off which the university generates millions in revenue.
You start reading this and you almost forget that the university owns those parking lots anyway, and doesn’t really need a football program’s permission to charge for parking, use them for intramurals or anything else its board decides should be done there, including bulldozing the whole structure and turning it into more parking.
Now, I get what athletics is saying, to a point. In a lot of its tuition arguments, I’m in agreement. For the university to give athletics a couple of million in scholarship money to draw women athletes who will pay back more than that in tuition, plus be good students, plus increase the university’s graduation and retention rates, plus be supportive alumni, is a good investment. It’s not really a subsidy.
But paying the light bill? That’s a subsidy. That’s a check from the university or its foundation or whomever to pay a bill that today’s ACC-member, record-revenue-generating athletic department, certainly, could very well pay on its own.
Yes, a great athletic department can enhance a university. We’ve seen it happen at U of L. The athletic facilities boom may be called over-the-top by some, but it has physically transformed U of L’s Belknap Campus for the better, and you can take that from someone who went to school there before those changes began. Some investment by universities in their athletic departments is worthwhile, and certainly support is worthwhile.
But none of that explains why an athletic department pulling in record revenues needs help with its utilities payments from a university that is strapped for cash and continually raising tuition.
And this is some of the frustration, I’m guessing, that may have animated the comments from Schnatter. We’re talking about an athletic department that was able to pay $917,466 to Marriott in Atlanta during the 2013 NCAA title run or spend $2.8 million going to the Music City Bowl in 2015 (against $1.9 million in revenue).
Here’s a simpler way to look at it.
If my neighbor is driving a Mercedes and I’m tooling around in a Ford Focus, I don’t feel like I need to pay his light bill every month – even if his place does enhance my property value or he tosses me some extra cash occasionally.
And this, apparently, has been the arrangement for a while – through all the tuition increases, layoffs, salary freezes and struggles. In 2009, for instance, U of L cut back on window cleaning to every two years to save $30,000. It installed power misers on vending machines to save a couple thousand dollars. That same year, one of the biggest athletic venders -- receiving $148,151 in athletic department payments alone -- was the Carlton Hotel in New York City. Literally, you had the university side making sure all the lights were turned off while the athletic side was staying at the Ritz. Athletics undoubtedly spent more on a single weekend in a New York hotel than the university side saved in a whole year of powering down the candy machines.
Yes, they are different piles of money; but apparently, not completely, because the university, according to that document from Miller, has been handing a pile of its money to athletics.
That’s fine if the university isn’t in hard times. And it’s fine if the athletic department isn’t spending extravagantly. But if the university side is struggling in any way, the subsidy should be questioned or at least discussed. And if the university is subsidizing athletics, then the athletic department should be operating under the same rules for spending the rest of the university adheres to.
This isn’t Papa John’s vs. Team Jurich. They are all on Team U of L.
Everybody would be well-served by remembering that.
Tom Jurich has moved athletics forward. Athletics has helped move the university forward, in some ways, and the university, in turn, helped the athletic department win membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference with various strides it made over the past 20 years.
All that is well and good. On Tuesday, Jurich offered a spirited defense of his department and its overall contributions. He should.
I’m not saying that athletics needs to contribute more to the overall university financial position. I am saying that it needs to, now more than ever, make sure it doesn’t do anything to contribute to the university’s financial difficulties.
Athletic spending continues unabated.
A $55 million football stadium expansion is underway. On Thursday, the athletic association approved the building of an $8 million video production studio for use in ACC Network telecasts and in-house video production.
If it has that kind of money to spend, the department needs to think seriously about whether it needs the university to pick up the tab for its utility bills, and whether it’s really necessary to collect $100 per year per student in the way of an athletic fee.
The goal of rising athletic revenues (and as recent moves by ESPN warn, the escalating television revenues of the past decade might soon be coming to an end) is not, after all, to spend more. The goal of rising athletic revenue is to create an athletic program that not only doesn’t use resources that could be used for academic pursuits, but that gives back to the university toward the goal of its greater mission.
I want to be perfectly clear. Louisville athletics, under Jurich, have been a significant catalyst for growth and good at the University of Louisville.
But it also shouldn’t be treated as some kind of treason to suggest that, at a time of overall university financial difficulty, athletics play on the same team as everyone else.
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