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John Blanchette: As NCAA slogs through coronavirus shutdown, money issues loom

UPDATED: Mon., March 30, 2020

So your favorite collegiate rower or third baseman will have this lost spring of athletic eligibility restored. Good deal. Any sliver of doing-the-right-thing by the NCAA deserves a huzzah.

And if it throws a little chaos – or even a lot – into the machinery of college athletics, that’s almost a bonus for some of us.

Apparently, the educrats think so, too. By deciding that schools may offer spring sports seniors the same scholarship aid they have this year, or less or none at all, the NCAA Division I Council cleared up next to nothing. But it did give the affected individuals at least the outline of an option – and the council did its parent organization a public relations solid after a year of seeing it bumble over transfer waivers and foot-drag on name, image and likeness rights.

Alas, winter sports seniors – like those at Gonzaga who had their sights set on a national championship – get no relief. Nothing to be done there, realistically, what with the best of the student work force eager to press on to the pros, among other complications.

Chaos, the NCAA can stomach, but not anarchy.

Though anarchy it surely will be if the coronavirus shutdown slogs on and messes with the 2020 football season in any meaningful way.

Without the college sports with mass audience investment involved, few have been consumed with the plight of locked-out hurdlers or the merits of spring eligibility reparations. Cancellation was a pity, yes, and it’s easy to empathize with the disappointment of seniors robbed of shining moments or even just last hurrahs. But with the toll of the virus growing more serious daily on human fronts where there will be no do-overs, how necessary was it to make things whole for a segment of college athletes?

This is no time to rank your hardships and sacrifices against your neighbor’s, true. But it is a time to do what needs doing. On Monday, the NCAA did what it could, presuming a resumption of normalcy in time.

Of course, you pretty much know how this is going to go.

There just isn’t going to be enough money, by golly.

Any number of college athletic administrators – all of whom wanted to do the right thing – were aghast a few weeks ago when the NCAA all but declared this extra year of spring eligibility would be forthcoming. They knew there would be a cost – anywhere from $500,000 to a million per school – in scholarships and support, and they all knew where that money wasn’t coming from.

Sure enough, last Thursday the NCAA announced that its direct distribution to member schools would be slashed by $375 million as a result of the cancellation of the cash-cow basketball tournament. The Ohio States and Alabamas might be able to absorb the expense without blinking, but that’s hardly true for most schools.

So now as Senior Susie decides she can suck it up and get in a year of grad school as long as her partial tennis scholarship gets renewed, chances are Coach Catgut is going to have to break it to her that, sorry, her ride is committed to Freshman Fran and the budget is tapped out.

Which brings us to the most interesting college athletic news that dropped over the weekend.

The good folks at AthleticDirectorU got busy with a sheaf of NCAA Financial Reports and discovered that over the past 15 years, the 52 Power 5 schools have spent $491,770,668 to pay off fired football and basketball coaches. That’s an average of $758,905 per school each year; in 2018, the figure was three times that. And, no, that doesn’t include any of the private schools.

In the context of modern-day Power 5 athletic budgets cresting over nine figures, that can seem like jockstrap money. Except that it could also pay for a spring’s worth of golf and lacrosse schollies and such for somebody’s senior class.

This isn’t to suggest NCAA schools should have seen COVID-19 coming and had a little something stashed away. That’s ridiculous. But it does speak to the sheer insanity of a fiscal model in which not only must every incoming dollar be spent, but millions that aren’t there – as has happened lately at all three of the public Division I schools in this area.

Beyond the $5 million football coaches that are the national norm thanks to agents tying schools in knots, there are football staffs with a dozen “analysts” or “quality control” operatives on top of the 10 assistant coaches. There are departments with double-figure associate athletic directors and their assistants, and titles on the door like manager of flight operations, story teller and assistant director of creative engagement – all doing a job, surely, but ones that didn’t exist until a TV contract got signed.

Except corona just unsigned a TV contract, and if there’s no football in September, even bigger checks will be voided.

Then it won’t be about doing the right thing. It’ll be about doing a painful, necessary thing.

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