Despite talk after Sandusky scandal, Penn State athletic machine churns on

An artist's rendering of the Pegula Ice Arena, which will open at Penn State next year. The arena is being built, at a cost of $102 million, mostly through a single donation.
An artist's rendering of the Pegula Ice Arena, which will open at Penn State next year. The arena is being built, at a cost of $102 million, mostly through a single donation.
Posted: August 06, 2012

On July 23, as grim Penn State athletics employees watched NCAA president Mark Emmert cite their football program as an example of college sports' worst excesses, workers across the street were busy constructing a $102 million hockey arena set to open next year.

Visible all around University Park that morning were the by-products of a $176 million project to renovate and construct other sports facilities - a $30 million baseball stadium; $16 million multisport building; $2.1 million tennis center; as well as upgraded soccer, lacrosse, golf, and swimming venues.

The skeletal hockey arena stood opposite the Bryce Jordan Center, the 17-year-old basketball arena built with a $33 million contribution from Pennsylvania - the same state whose budget woes have more recently led the university to lay off teachers, cut academic programs, and make its tuition the highest in the nation for in-state students at a state college.

This juxtaposition of the shame and splendor of Penn State athletics was just the latest reminder of the power of big-time college sports.

"One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge," Emmert said last month. "The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs. All involved in intercollegiate athletics must be watchful that programs and individuals do not overwhelm the values of higher education."

Even as Penn State has been shaken to its core by public outrage over the Jerry Sandusky scandal, harsh NCAA sanctions, and the state's sizable financial problems, the school's sports juggernaut rolls on seemingly unimpeded. As it does every August, the football team will begin practice Monday.

Penn State is not alone. Newer, glitzier facilities and mega-million-dollar coaching contracts are now part of the accepted formula for athletic success. They have become essential factors in the mad scramble for TV revenue, a bottomless pot of gold that this year alone will bring the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conferences a combined $703.2 million, according to a review of contracts by ESPN.com.

But, critics argue, the mania also may be compromising the core value of these universities at a time when they can least afford it.

"We've got an enterprise associated with our universities that not only is not living up to the principles of the NCAA, it's distorting the values of our institutions," said Brit Kirwan, the University System of Maryland chancellor who serves as president of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a longtime college-sports watchdog.

"We've got institutions that now are paying assistant coaches a million dollars. All of this within the context of academic institutions that have been absolutely decimated by budget cuts, and in the context where students going to these academic institutions are facing double-digit tuition increases. We're going to build evermore lavish athletic empires if we don't return to our principles."

Some fear those principles may be irretrievable. Across the nation, even as educational funding shrivels, sports spending is increasing at twice the rate of academic expenses.

Southeastern Conference schools, for example, spent 11.6 times more on athletes than nonathletes in 2009, according to the Knight Commission. That ratio was 6.8-1 in Penn State's Big Ten.

Meanwhile, as most schools continue to feed the ever-hungry sports beast, it's academics that frequently get squeezed, tuitions that annually are driven up.

A 2009 study by the American Association of University Professors found that full-time professors now comprise less than 25 percent of faculties, their positions now either eliminated or filled by cheaper part-time instructors. In 1975, professors made up 45 percent of all college teachers.

Surprisingly, there are few examples of outraged faculties rising up in outrage. One such occurrence took place at California-Berkeley, where professors protested a proposed $270 million upgrade for the school's football stadium.

"Intercollegiate athletics has been playing by a very different set of budgetary rules from the rest of the campus," a Cal-Berkeley faculty report said. "The culture of what has appeared to be unconstrained spending must change."

Jon Ericson, a retired Drake professor who founded the Drake Group, an organization aimed at taming the excesses of college sports, said the fight at Cal-Berkeley was an aberration.

"Sooner or later, though, when some school builds one too many skybox, you might at last see some significant faculty reaction," said Ericson.

"The rush to build larger and better facilities is a prime indicator that athletics has lost its way," said Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science who was Penn State's NCAA faculty representative from 2000 to 2010. "These facilities have little to do with the quality of the educational experience, and they are part and parcel of the 'win-at-all-cost' ethic of modern, big-time sport. [But] it's hard to know how to curtail this building growth. The students like high-visibility teams. So do the public, the alums, the donors, the trustees. What president, in his or her right mind, is going to take this on?"

Tuitions at the nation's four-year public universities rose 15 percent between 2008 and 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In-state students at Penn State's main campus paid $15,250 in 2011, the highest in the nation for a four-year public college. Nonresidents paid more than $27,000.

A Penn State spokesman said the hikes were essential since budget cuts have made it necessary "for students and their families to cover most of our costs."

Still, in many ways, Penn State has been fortunate. Most of its recent building boom has been funded by private donors like Terry Pegula, who gave $88 million to cover the costs of the hockey building's construction, then chipped in an additional $14 million, much of which will go to scholarships.

And while nine of 10 Division I athletic programs lose money and rely on their schools' general funds to make up the shortfall, according to a USA Today study, the Nittany Lions have always generated enough from football to support the entire athletics budget, saving most of its vulnerable nonrevenue sports in the process.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers noted that the construction and maintenance of these facilities - not including the Jordan Center - were funded entirely through a mix of philanthropy, athletics loans, or reserves, and, in some cases, student fees.

"Athletics at Penn State is one of the few self-supporting enterprises of its type among peer institutions," Powers said. "Penn State intercollegiate athletics funds 29 sports and their facilities. No taxpayer dollars are used for the support of intercollegiate athletics - including the construction of its facilities."

Other schools, even other large, state-related universities in the Mid-Atlantic region, haven't been as fortunate financially.

In 2009, the Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland's athletic facilities as the nation's best. But all that spending and subsequent state cutbacks have fueled a financial crisis. Maryland's athletics department is losing money and recently eliminated seven sports programs.

"What seems to be happening all too often nationwide is that the breadth and depth of athletic departments are being cut," John Nichols, cochair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, recently told the Washington Post. "The people who could and should be responsible for fixing what almost certainly is going to be a train wreck are either unwilling or unable to do it. Unless you assume that television money is a bottomless pit - and there are no limits to the amount of money that television networks will invest - there is going to be a day of reckoning."

While Penn State's athletic budget has more than doubled since 1995, its appropriations from cash-strapped Pennsylvania have been stagnant. The $279 million Penn State will receive this year is roughly what it got in 1995, when there were 20,000 fewer students.

To help offset the trend, the university has trimmed its operating budget for 21 straight years and, like schools everywhere, frantically sought private donations. And yet, educators agree, nothing generates contributions as effectively as glamorous football and basketball programs.

Despite the flood tide of negative publicity from the Sandusky scandal, Penn State was able to raise $208 million in donations during the fiscal year that ended June 30. That's its second-highest total ever.

Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the seat-licensing fees required of football season-ticket holders, the Nittany Lion Club raised $82.4 million for athletics in fiscal 2011.

"Where is all this revenue going?" Kirwan asked of the trend. "It's certainly not going to the student-athletes, because they're getting basically the same things they always got - room, board, books, and tuition. With the rare exception of one or two institutions, it isn't going into the academic mission. So where does this revenue go? It goes into increasing the salaries of conference commissioners and athletics coaches and staff. And to building evermore opulent athletic facilities."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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