Herald-Leader Editorial

Athletics are valued over academics at Kentucky colleges

December 6, 2013 

There's a reason some very famous quotes deal with the relationship between what people say and what they do with their money.

Some examples: "Put your money where your mouth is." "Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also."

Which makes us wonder about the values of Kentucky's public universities.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics this week released findings that show spending on athletes at Kentucky public universities in recent years grew at a much faster rate than spending on mere academic students.

At the University of Kentucky, in fact, academic spending per student fell 12 percent, according to the Knight data, between 2005 and 2011, while spending on athletes rose 7 percent.

Total spending at UK per athlete, including from athletic revenues, was $170,103 compared to average academic spending per student of $14,798.

But UK is hardly the most alarming school in this data. UK, with its high-profit sports of football and men's basketball, put relatively little from its general funds into athletes in 2011, averaging $1,682.

Not so at the regionals. As the chart here shows, Western Kentucky University, which has been on an athletic steroid trip in recent years, uses an average of $36,238 from university-wide monies per athlete.

Eastern is not far behind at $33,177, and Morehead, where spending on athletes jumped 121 percent between '05 and '11, comes in at $27,725.

Morehead is extreme but at every public university the growth in average spending on student athletes far outstripped that on other students.

This in a period when, as a punishing recession took hold, state funding contracted along with family resources. That means many students were faced with a range of bad choices: borrow more, leave school, cut back on either classes or studying to have more time to earn money to pay for school.

Not one of these is acceptable, each meaning that a student is either less likely to finish school or more likely to graduate with crippling debt. Or worse, leave with debt but no diploma.

In this context, university presidents in this poor state and the trustees who oversee them increased support for student athletes while allowing support for purely academic students to languish.

Certainly some will defend this, pointing out that athletes make up a small portion of the student population and that athletics adds an important, if unquantifiable, symbolic value to a school.

Of course, if symbols matter, then these spending decisions matter.

Speaking of symbols, UK takes pride in the $1 million athletics provides annually in academic scholarships, a number that in the context of UK's $2.7 billion annual budget could be viewed as largely symbolic.

The bottom line is this: When school administrators invest more in students who are athletes than those who aren't, it's a clear signal about an institution's values.

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