Happy Medium Between Academics And Athletics

By Ran Northam Posted April 26, 2013 at 3:31 am

CHAPEL HILL – More attention is paid to college athletics on campuses nationwide than other programs that are making more money for the colleges and universities, but that’s what the fans want to see. This ongoing conversation is getting louder nationwide.

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Reilly Parker is a freshman on the reigning national champion UNC women’s soccer team. She says there’s clearly a problem noticed by many of where to draw the line between academics and athletics.

“I think ultimately you can’t get away from what Carolina stands for and what that logo symbolizes,” Parker says. “I know growing up as a child, you see that logo, and it just stands for so much more than academics to me and to, I know, a lot of other athletes.”

Athletics account for $70 million of UNC’s approximately $2.5 billion annual budget, not to mention another $2 billion in the hospital.

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp says that by those figures alone, athletics gets an unequal amount of attention compared to other programs. He says he spends more of his time dealing with that department than others that cost more and generate more.

Sallie Shuping-Russell is a graduate of Carolina and a current member of the UNC Board of Trustees. She says the Chancellor’s assessment is not far off.

“I think athletics plays a role within a higher-education setting,” Shuping Russell says. “The right question is what is that role and is it out of balance? If so, how do we get it back in balance rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Revenue-generating sports—football, men’s basketball, and, to an extent, baseball—are at the heart of the conversation. The nation has shown that those are the areas in which it’s most interested. Multiple sources show that the NFL brings in around $10 billion a year; the MLB’s annual revenue numbers are somewhere near $7 billion; and the NBA brings in around $4 billion.

The need for those professions to continue to grow and be ever-better trickles down to the college level when the organizations are looking for the best tool to take them to the next level.

The colleges and universities participating in Big Time Sports haven’t missed out on the profitability of them. Schools like Texas and Florida—among others—are in the range of $100 million of annual revenue. Recently, North Carolina Athletic Director, Bubba Cunningham said he wants his program to get there adding 40 percent to its annual revenue.

One way of saving money all while increasing revenue is cutting costs. Maryland recently cut seven non-revenue-generating sports in an attempt to offset a large deficit. Former UNC football offensive lineman, Brian Chacos says that’s a path that many schools are already heading down.

“That’s just a sad reality that most major schools are (doing),” Chacos says. “Most major schools have 28 sports, and they’re heading to 20. Obviously with Title IX, we can’t just cut a certain kind of sport. It’s going to have to be both men’s and women’s sports that are going to have to go.”

Shuping-Russell says she’s not aware of any conversation at UNC about cutting any programs. In fact, she says she’s quite confident that the current programs are likely to remain.

“I’m trying to think if I’ve missed something, because I think one of the things that we feel very strongly (about) is to try to be able to allow as many students to play sports as possible,” Shuping-Russell says. “I want to make sure that as we perhaps talk about this as part of a national conversation that it not be misinterpreted that it is becoming a part of a local conversation, because to my knowledge, there’s no intention of cutting any of the programs.”

Laurie Paolicelli is the executive director of the Orange County Visitors Bureau. She says a cut to athletics in any capacity would be a big blow to the community.

“You look at our football weekend, and there’s no room at the inn,” Paolicelli says. “You look at the average dollar left by a sport tourist, $0.25 of that is going to the hotel; the rest is going out into the community. As we beam and pride at new restaurants, new retail, new infrastructure improvements to our town and our county, that is in no small part due to our sports tourists. And, not just the revenue-production sports.”

Chancellor Thorp told a panel on athletics last week that “it wasn’t a smooth road to enlightenment” for him in discovering how to run college athletics. The next step in that process might follow suite, but UNC professor and associate chair of the History department, Jay Smith says if the University values athletics as much as it says it does—which he thinks it does—then another revenue model needs to be discovered.

“Why can’t we raise student fees, let’s say?” Smith asks. “Why can’t we start charging admission for women’s soccer games? There are other ways to raise revenue; why must we have this model resting on what I still…regard as the exploitation if football and basketball players.”

These comments and many more were made during the Big Time Sports panel of the 2013 WCHL Chapel Hill – Carrboro – Orange County Community Forum. You can hear the ten-hour forum in its entirety by clicking here.

**Revisions are noted in italics

***On behalf of UNC Athletic Director, Bubba Cunningham, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Communications, Steve Kirschner told WCHL that Bubba Cunningham and the UNC Athletic Department are not contemplating dropping any sports.

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