The Role of Academics in College Sports — Part II


June 14th, 2017

(Photo courtesy Houston Chronicle)

Yesterday, in part one of the series, “the Role of Academics in College Sports,” KVNO reporter Brandon McDermott looked at a recent sports study showing the graduation gaps among different student athlete demographics at universities across the country. Today in part two, he focuses on academic incentives in contracts for college football coaches.

To listen to part one of this series, click here.

Omaha, NE – The highest paid state employees in 27-out-of-50 states are head college football coaches. In 12 other states, the highest paid state employee is  the head basketball coach at a state university. Many state college coaches’ contracts are seven figures.

The contracts often include fringe benefits: memberships to country clubs, vehicles for coaches and their families, as well as incentives for on-field performance and hitting academic benchmarks.

(Photo courtesy Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

For example, Mike Riley at the University of Nebraska will make $2.9 million in 2017. In total, Riley could receive up to $950,000 in on-field bonuses, like winning the Big Ten title. Surprisingly, there is no incentive in his contract for academic performance. Nebraska’s Academic Progress Report (APR) for the 2014-2015 year was 977, which was good for only an 8th place standing in the Big Ten.

The APR is the way the NCAA measures athlete graduation rate at universities. The APR offers a motivation to be eligible for college bowl games. The minimum threshold is 930 for a four-year average or 940 for a two-year average.


In-contract incentives for college coaches

Other coaches across the country have academic incentives in their contracts, but these pale in comparison to their on-field bonuses.

Dr. Dustin White poses for a photo. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

For instance, Mark Stoops, head coach at the University of Kentucky will earn $3.5 million this year, plus $250,000 for every win after he reaches seven wins. But academically, he receives only $50,000 per semester in which the team grade-point average is 2.75 or higher.

The head football coach at the University of Utah, Kyle Whittingham, says academics are of utmost importance to him. Utah competes in the Pac-12 – a Power Five conference.

“Student athletes are here first and foremost to graduate that’s the primary objective is for us to provide them a future and a degree does just that,” Whittingham said. “Last year, our single year APR rate was the highest in the nation – us and Cal-Berkeley were tied for number one of the nation. That really takes into account how your student athletes are progressing academically and are there graduating.”

Dr. Daniel Hawkins poses for a photo. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Whittingham, who has been at Utah since 2005, said he isn’t just paying lip service to academics. When it comes to academics, his record speaks for itself, he noted. His staff weeds out players during the recruiting process who aren’t serious about being a good student.

“I flat out tell them right out of the gate,” Whittingham said. “‘If you’re a guy who is going to college to play football and academics are not a priority for you and that’s not important to you — don’t come to Utah, because it’s the wrong place.’ Because (at Utah) academics are number one.”

In Whittingham’s contract he receives a $300,000 bonus for reaching a BCS bowl game, but just $15,000 per year to have a team academic rating of 970 or better.

Dr. Dustin White, associate professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said it’s simple.

“That says a lot about how much we care about academic incentives in sports,” White said. “(But) I’m not entirely sure that there is an economic problem. I say that while also thinking that the NCAA is a crazy place. It’s not being clear why student athletes aren’t paid and why they don’t have the ability to work as professionals while they go to school.”

White also said there isn’t one group or person to blame for this.

“I don’t know (if) the blame falls on the coaches, players, the NCAA, or the consumers in particular,” White said. “But combined, we don’t care enough about graduation for it to be something that coaches get prime incentives for.”

Dr. Daniel Hawkins, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said fans care most about winning.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to ask fans to be a little self-critical of what system they’re sort of feed into,” Hawkins said. “At the same time, I totally understand how football so woven into the culture of Nebraska in general and it’s a point of pride that you can’t just get rid of. So, I don’t know I don’t know what the answer is to all this.”

White put it another way.

White: Who’s your favorite professional player in let’s say football?

Brandon: I’ll say Aaron Rodgers.

White: Did he graduate from Cal?

Brandon: I don’t think he did. I think he left his junior year didn’t he?

White: I’m just asking — do you remember?

Brandon: I don’t remember.

White: So as a consumer — how much do you really care whether or not he graduates?

White said most fans can name stats from players, where they went to college, maybe even what size shoe they wear, but many can’t tell you whether that player graduated or not.


Athletics benefit universities directly

Research shows the better a football and basketball team does one year the higher their enrollment rates and charitable giving rates go up the following year. So there is something to be said about sports helping academics at a university in a direct way.

“What you see is there’s actually an increase in the number of people who are interested in going to that school,” White said. “Not only that but if there’s 10 percent more students going, that means that you can skim better students out of your application pool.”

White said it’s not the lowest common denominator either.

“What they actually find is that — it’s not worse students who are applying — it’s actually students across the entire spectrum of SAT scores,” White said. “Given that you’re just getting more students applying, if you want to have the same size student body you can pick better students to come to school.”

Hawkins said that is why colleges are so sport-focused. He also said this feeds into fans’ hunger as well.

“Having your football players in the top five in the Big Ten team GPA is great, but that’s not what the fans care about,” Hawkins said. “They care about winning Big Ten titles and being in the national championship picture.”

Hawkins said there is a priority on athletics — across the board — which doesn’t translate to academics. He thinks athletic administrations, coaches and fans all play into the system of valuing sports over education.

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