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Zuba: Making cents of college sports

Samantha Zuba | Wednesday, November 20, 2013


$52.3 million – that’s not a multiyear contract extension for a baseball player. That’s how much the ACC would like to charge the University of Maryland for leaving the conference for the Big Ten next season.

Please pause for a moment and recognize how utterly absurd this entire situation is.

A North Carolina appeals court upheld the massive fine, but Maryland could appeal to a higher court, and the school has another suit pending back home in Maryland. But no matter what the courts decide, no one wins this one.

Maryland definitely does not win if it has to pay the fine. The school’s athletic department has struggled in recent years as top revenue-drawing sports, namely, football and basketball, bottomed out. Donors cut back, and now the current university president, Wallace Loh, says staying in the ACC is no longer financially feasible for Maryland.


A $52.3 million fine does not sound any more feasible.

Some estimates suggest the Big Ten could earn Maryland $100 million in additional revenue by 2020, but the fine for leaving the ACC amounts to more than half of that total. 

What a waste.

Since when is it acceptable for a university to throw around tens of millions of dollars? The university funds are separate from athletic funds, but the athletic department has an obligation to exhibit some fiscal responsibility as part of the school. Given Maryland’s current situation, such responsibility has been consistently lacking.

Amidst the financial brouhaha and conference shuffling, Maryland athletes have suffered. Seven varsity teams, including men’s and women’s swimming, men’s cross-country and men’s tennis, were dropped in July 2012. The graduation success rate for athletes was recorded at 86 percent this year. Although this number is an improvement over 2012, when the football team posted a 65 percent success rate, the percentages are subpar at best. 

The athletic department hopes to make things better for its student athletes by making more money in the Big Ten, but it seems little is being done directly for the athletes right now. All they are getting are promises of more money in the future. Maybe that will translate into better equipment and facilities, but who can say?

The message is clear: Hold on, athletes who build our program, we’ll be right with you … after we chase a lucrative contract.

No wonder student athletes sometimes feel abused by the system. No wonder some advocates argue that student athletes should get compensated. They are, after all, just pawns in a money game, right? They should get some cash out of it.

$100 million will not make the powers that be in Maryland’s athletic department better managers. It just gives them more money to kick around, and that’s not real change.

Who’s to say another conference won’t offer Maryland a better deal five years down the road? Does the school pay another exorbitant exit fee to jump ship again?

Given that Maryland was a member of the ACC for 59 years, perhaps the school has the potential to develop a new, lasting relationship with the Big Ten. Then again, perhaps not. They might not be able to afford to stay if more money continues to be the solution to bad management.

In a system like this, the ACC suffers, too. If the ACC, or any other conference, has to level fines to retain members, that says something about its mission statement. 

The ACC should be a forum for competition, and members should have some loyalty to and respect for the organization that provides them with the opportunity to compete.

Instead, the conference seems like a brief stopping point for universities until they can find something better. Agreements with the conference are short-term and meant to be broken when it’s in a school’s best interests. Forget the lofty virtue of loyalty – schools can’t even honor their contracts. 

How much is breaking a promise worth? For Maryland, it could be $52.3 million.

It’s sad that America’s institutions of higher learning choose to send this message. 

That’s the nature of business, but it misses the point of college sports.