John Clay: Priorities out of whack in athletics, academics worlds

jclay@herald-leader.com,JohnClayJune 20, 2012 

A smart businessman, Mitch Barnhart knows to strike when the iron is hot, and Kentucky basketball is currently red-hot.

The Cats just won their eighth national championship. John Calipari just signed his fourth consecutive No. 1 recruiting class. The school just led the nation in college basketball attendance for the 16th time in the last 17 years.

Little wonder that at Tuesday's UK athletics meeting, Barnhart announced the school is cashing in on its renewed success.

The number of Rupp Arena seats requiring an initial K-fund donation will increase. Season-ticket prices will increase. Single-game tickets will undergo a so-called "price adjustment."

Fans will gripe. Then fans will pay. It's supply and demand, and right now the demand is much greater than the supply.

UK insisted the requested increases are based on need, not on taking advantage of the loyalty of the Big Blue Nation.

Aren't the two one and the same, however? To continue supporting the product, the Big Blue Nation "needs" UK to win, and to win, the athletic department "needs" the funds.

What's striking isn't athletics' plan to squeeze a few more dollars out of its rabid fan base. What's striking is the financial contrast between what is going on in college athletics departments and what is going on in college classrooms, not just at UK but across the nation.

While support on the academic side falls short of meeting needs and wants, spending on the athletics side continues to soar.

According to USA Today, the 227 public schools in the NCAA's Division I increased spending on athletics by $267 million last year.

Meanwhile, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that there was nearly a 1 percent decline in state appropriations for colleges and universities in 2011.

Rarely has the difference been exhibited in such a stark manner as the day Calipari announced a "fantasy experience" with a price tag of $7,500 per camper.

It was that same day that the university announced it would be laying off more than 100 employees.

While the athletic department grows, its operating budget now a record $91 million, the university slashes.

While the athletic department builds a new basketball lodge, with help from a corporate sponsor, the school is scrambling to find ways to fund the replacements for its outdated dormitories.

While the Southeastern Conference reported a record $241.5 million distribution for its 12 conference schools, the university continues to beg for more state dollars as it balances its groaning budget on the backs of its students with heavy tuition increases.

Don't blame Barnhart for that and don't blame the athletics department. The AD has balanced the books and found new revenue streams, all with minimal financial help (less than $1 million in student fees) from the university.

UK now not only makes an effort to compete in every sport — which not that long ago was not the case — but just finished a year when it earned eye-catching success in a great number of those sports.

Plus, to its credit, the athletics department increased its donation to academics from $1.7 million to $3 million for the next school year.

"UK parents" who have seen their children's tuition and fees increase by more than 5 percent for nine straight years might say of that $3 million pledge, "It's about time."

And yet, at the end of banking hours, you still can't shake the feeling our priorities remain hopelessly skewed. Athletics rule. Academics drool. It's all about supply and demand.

My guess: There will be more outrage over the ticket price increases than there is over the lack of state funding for higher education.

Not that this is anything new, mind you.

Back in the 1960s, longtime University of Oklahoma president George Lynn Cross famously told the Oklahoma State Senate, "I want a university the football team can be proud of."

Here, we'd say "basketball team."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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