Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That statement by Lord Acton in 1877 has become a staple in political science classrooms. He would have been dead-on if he had said money instead of power, too.

Students in those political science classes can see the corruption firsthand. Just walk over to the practice field or court and watch the varsity teams practice. Money has corrupted virtually every school in the “Power 5” conferences (Southeastern, Big 10, Big 12, Pacific 12, Atlantic Coast), which, collectively, have 65 member schools.

The athletics budget of the University of Maine, which fields teams in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is about $21 million. But the budget of the University of Alabama, also Div. I, is $159 million ($51 million just for football). No, ‘Bama’s budget isn’t the highest in the country. The University of Texas spends $207 million. Here’s a difference. UMaine adds $14 million to the budget beyond what teams raise on their own. Texas, Alabama and others make a profit on sports.

From where does all that money come? TV, for one. ESPN pays $470 million a year to show Division I (bowl series) football playoffs. CBS pays $55 million for SEC football. The conferences average from $22 million per school/per year (ACC) to $34 million (SEC).

In addition, these universities get barrels of money for sewing corporate logos onto team gear. Ohio State gets nearly $17 million a year (nearly as much as the entire UMaine athletic budget) to put a Nike swoosh everywhere you might have expected to see a Buckeye. Even the Ivies are on the take. Yale gets $16.5 million from Under Armour.

Think about that the next time you read a news story about a kid who was killed by a thug who wanted the victim’s Nikes.

Some of these schools have big-time donors, too. A friend showed us around Oklahoma State University, where T. Boone Pickens, an oilman and OSU grad, donated $165 million for athletics. Our friend showed us the football stadium, but she couldn’t show us the indoor full-sized football practice field. It wasn’t open that day.

The P5 schools pay good wages. The football coach at Texas earns $5.5 million a year. The president earns $750,000 a year, about a seventh. Alabama’s coach gets $8.3 million, its president $535,000, about a 15th. Most of us might settle for the 535 grand.

For years, sports business observers thought they could see the caboose on this gravy train. For years, they have been wrong. In fact, the NCAA, which supposedly regulates the athletics activities of its 1,089 members, has given the P5 special powers to “self-regulate.” Hens, meet fox. We shouldn’t be surprised when the abuses pile up.

Last month, the University of Maryland finally fired football coach DJ Durkin after the board of regents had absolved him of abusing players and creating a culture that led to the death (heat stroke) of football player Jordan McNair. Instead of firing Durkin, the regents told Wallace Loh, the president, to reinstate Durkin, who had been suspended when McNair died, if Loh wanted to keep his job until June. Students rebelled, demonstrating to demand Durkin’s firing. Durkin was back only one day when Loh, who is smart enough to know that even a lame duck can do the right thing, cashiered him.

But Loh bought out Durkin’s $5 million contract, rather than firing him. So, win-win. Loh retires on pension, Durkin gets 5 million bucks and Maryland almost upsets mighty Ohio State on the football field. Oh, yeah, Jordan McNair is still dead.

(A difference. In July, Darius Minor, a freshman on the University of Maine football team, collapsed and died at practice. An autopsy showed that Minor, despite having passed two physicals, had a weak aorta lining that gave out. I have seen no suggestion that UMaine staff or players did anything wrong in the Minor case.)

The Maryland affair was only the most sordid recent case. Last year, the University of Louisville fired men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino when it became known that UL was hiring “escorts” for players and recruits. Pitino denied knowledge. Big-time coaches tend to be control freaks, the type who might tell the players which cereal to eat each morning. But he didn’t know the school was renting hookers? Come on.

Scandals rankle elsewhere, too. Kenneth Starr, the prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton (another bad actor), was canned as president of Baylor University, a Southern Baptist school, after reports of male athletes harassing and attacking female students. The University of North Carolina offered “courses” for which athletes got credit without attending. The “professor” was dismissed, but no one in athletics or administration paid any price. It’s easy to imagine that these schools learn to wink-wink-nudge-nudge as they compete for athletes who will look great in dear ole alma mater’s colors.

Solutions aren’t easy to come by. Joe Nocera, a columnist for Bloomberg and a former sports-business columnist for the New York Times, has long argued that schools should pay the players. His arguments haven’t gained traction, but maybe . . . Instead of pay, the schools give scholarships, which include tuition, room and board, books and some incidental expenses, such as a trip home each year.

Can you imagine a coach telling a recruit, “You can earn a degree at my school, and then you can sell insurance for $40,000 a year?” Not gonna happen. No wonder 60 percent of pro players never graduate.

Nocera believes the abuse won’t end until colleges decide to cut the pie differently, with hefty slices for the young people who bring in all that money. Don’t hold your breath.

Despite his feelings about money in big-time college sports, Bob Neal is in Annapolis, Maryland, today, watching the UMaine women play basketball. Go, Blue.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: