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Derrick Z. Jackson

The Rutgers lesson for UMass

If UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell wish to learn from cautionary tales, they should pay very close attention to Rutgers University. Like UMass Amherst, Rutgers is a northeastern state university that labors in the shadows of prestigious private schools nearby — and has a much lower national profile than such sports-championship factories as Michigan or Ohio State.

In what has become standard operating procedure these days, Rutgers decided to raise its profile by joining the Big Ten Conference, beginning next year. Anticipating the revenues and TV exposure of playing Ohio State and Michigan, Rutgers’ then-athletic director Tim Pernetti boasted, “This secures our stability in athletics forever. The financial resources go without saying.”

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But somewhere along the line, Rutgers forgot that the higher the monkey climbs, the more you see an unflattering part of its anatomy. Basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for verbally and physically abusing players. Pernetti was forced out for doing nothing about it. New basketball coach Eddie Jordan was trumpeted by Rutgers as a graduate, but he was not. In April, men’s lacrosse coach Brian Brecht was suspended under accusations of verbal abuse.

Then came Julie Hermann, the newly hired athletic director. She has been accused of verbal abuse when she coached volleyball at Tennessee in the 1990s, and of looking the other way about sexual discrimination when she was a senior athletic administrator at Louisville. Rutgers President Robert Barchi maintains that Hermann was hired after a “rigorous” process. But he has not detailed the degree to which past incidents were vetted. Hermann has denied any abusive behavior.

But in college athletics, abuses can go well beyond the foul mouths of coaches. There is a common misconception that college athletics pay for themselves, through ticket sales, licensing deals, and other self-generated revenues. But earlier this month, USA Today reported that Rutgers was the second-most subsidized athletic department in the nation; propping up a $64 million program is $28 million in general university funds. Newark’s Star-Ledger newspaper reported that the money taken from student fees to pay for sports rose 5 percent in the last year, to $9.5 million. Over the last decade, student fees for sports rose by nearly 80 percent.

That should be sobering for UMass Amherst, which already has the sixth-most subsidized athletic department in the nation; the school props up a $30 million program with $24 million of its own funds. UMass Amherst is hoping that an increase in competition, to the top level of Division 1, will create excitement, but the team drew even fewer fans at gleaming Gillette Stadium — just 10,900 a game — than when it played on campus at a lower level of Division 1. That hardly justifies the doubling of football’s budget to $8 million a year.

In contrast, UMass Lowell had a fabulous year, as its Division 1 hockey team made the NCAA Frozen Four. But it, too, should be wary as it moves the rest of its sports to Division 1. Although it does not have the cost of a football program, and its athletes generally have dramatically higher graduation rates than the general student body, the move up still means that its $7.4 million athletic program may triple in cost.

The report should be sobering for UMass Amherst.

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The rationale for sports spending is that it provides an attractive “front porch” that brings in new students and alumni donations. That theory has never been proven broadly true, even as athletic costs skyrocket. The Delta Cost Project, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on college costs, found that spending per athlete runs as high as $164,000 in the Southeastern Conference, compared with $13,400 per student. Even in UMass Amherst’s Mid-American Conference, spending per athlete is $52,500, compared with $13,000 per student.

“Not only does athletic spending per athlete far exceed academic spending per student, it is also growing about twice as fast,” the Delta Cost Project said. “Disparities in academic and athletic spending suggest that participating public colleges and universities reexamine their game plans.”

Rutgers’ game plan has failed. Meanwhile, both UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell must stay on guard, lest one of them become the latest monkey to expose an unflattering backside.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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