College Athletics’ Slimmed Down Future?

“The athletic department of tomorrow could go through what Bristol is going through today,” writes Frank Hawkins, principal of Scalar Media Partners, a Manhattan sports and media consulting firm, in a May 9, 2017 article in Hawkins was referring to the recent severe downsizing at the Bristol, CT based cable sports network ESPN.

As a result of a major drop in subscribers, ESPN released roughly 100 on air journalists.  This, after a previous round of dismissals of several hundred behind the scenes jobs two years ago. The reduced revenue is largely a result of customers switching to an “a la carte” model where they can pick and choose which channels they pay for. As a result, by some estimates, television rights fees will drop by at least 30% in the coming years. While many college network deals have several years remaining, the prospect of such decline has college officials considering what heretofore has been unthinkable – downsizing athletic departments.

It’s about time. 

For too long, athletic department spending, particularly the top 60 or so programs has been out of control. Head coaches regularly earn millions and even position coaches receive salaries in the mid-six figure range.  In almost every state in Union, the highest paid public employee is the football or basketball coach. A facilities arms race has been raging for years. Clemson University’s athletic complex includes a bowling alley and nap rooms. Auburn added a $14 million video board to its stadium.  At Texas, new lockers were installed in the football complex at a cost of $10,500 apiece.  According to public records, athletic departments at 13 schools have long-term debt obligations of more than $150 million as of 2014. 

According to The Washington Post, between 2004 and ’14 revenues at 48 of the biggest athletic programs grew from $2.7 billion to 4.5 billion, but spending moved in lockstep from $2.6 billion to$4.4 billion. And still most athletic departments operate at a deficit.

In an era of rising educational expectations and standards, decreasing academic resources, rising student athletic fees and rising student debt, such lavish, unchecked spending on athletics is obscene.

Despite widespread belief to the contrary, as information relating to finances becomes more transparent, it is clear that athletics has not been as fiscally sound an investment as long believed. Virtually every financial trend, throughout every NCAA division, points to athletics expenses increasing not only at a faster rate than generated revenues, but also far outstripping overall institutional spending.  Further, the total athletic expenditures as a percentage of total institutional expenses continues to increase. The fact is, there are no Division II or III institutions and only a small handful of Division I institutions where generated revenues exceed expenses. According to the NCAA, in 2013, the median negative net generated revenue, representing expenses in excess of generated revenues at the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools was over $11.5 million and almost $11 million for both the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) as well as Division I schools without football. In 2014, at the Division II level, those numbers are $4.1 million for schools without football and $5.2 million for schools with football at the Division II level. And in 2014 at the division III level, those numbers are $2.2 million without football and $2.3 million with football. And by all indications, institutional deficit spending on athletics, already significant, will continue to grow. 

So while Division I athletic programs are clearly generating a substantial amount of revenue, the fact is, except for approximately 20 programs, they spend far more money than they generate. That being the case, it is critical that university leaders consider whether such deficit spending is appropriate and commensurate with the academic benefits generated. 

But that is only part of the story.

While many return on investment analyses start and end with the hard numbers, to truly understand the cost of athletics, it is imperative to consider the educational opportunity costs associated with such deficit spending, Specifically, could the general institutional resources that are currently spent to underwrite the athletic program be spent on other academic programs or services that contribute more directly to institutional educational mission?

For example, would those resources be better spend on improving science labs or offering additional sections in majors where students often can not enroll in required courses due to lack of course offerings? Or, perhaps various student services could be expanded or the library or institutional wi-fi service improved. Or, in an age of rising student debt, reduce the school’s activity fee, which in part, helps pay for the athletic department deficit.

In short, institutions that are not willing to take a hard ROI look at their athletic departments in an era of rising educational expectations and tightening resources may be in for a rude financial awakening. Students and their parents are increasingly skeptical about the real value of a traditional college degree and thus are taking a closer look to determine which schools are best equipped and most committed to delivering on a quality education as opposed to sponsoring lavish athletic facilities and spectacle.  In such an environment, schools would be well served to consider whether their athletic programs can be restructured or rescaled in a way that makes more sense fiscally and fits more comfortably into institutional mission. 

While the usual knee jerk reaction to the prospect of downsizing or restructuring the athletic department is for the athletic “lobby” to scream bloody murder and claim that downsizing athletics will result in the demise of the institution, there is another way to look at the situation.

Specifically, could there be an educational opportunity in pursuing such a path?

Perhaps there is a branding opportunity for a school to position itself as one that is truly committed to academics and increasing the value of their degree and the academic quality of the experience for the general student body rather than spending significant time, energy, emotion and resources on an athletic department that serves a small slice of elite athletes and entertainment for the masses. In other words, if I am a student who cares first and foremost about the quality of academic experience my college offers, I would be attracted to a school that is committed enough to that principle to seriously consider whether money spent on athletics would be better spent on academic resources. In an age of rapidly rising student debt that thought is not so far fetched.  After all, when it’s all said and done, athletics remains an “extracurricular” activity, which means it is not a central component of the educational mission of the institution.

The question is this. Are lavishly funded athletic programs truly important enough to the long-term success and effectiveness of the institution to continue to compromise academic integrity, abandon fiscal prudence and jeopardize institutional mission in the name of entertainment and championship banners? When an increasing number of trend lines point to a future of declining revenue streams and rapidly rising expenses, institutions that do not honestly, carefully and seriously consider recalibrating their financial commitment to athletics may, in the not so distant future, be forced to go through what ESPN is going through today.

Do Pianos Have Souls? Revised & Updated 2.0

I’d never given any thought to whether pianos, like humans, are living, breathing beings with souls. That changed the morning I stopped by the Music For Everyone Keys for the City piano located in front of Lancaster’s Main Public Library early one May morning in 2010.

Since 2010 MFE has been placing anywhere from 12 to 20 pianos, all designed and painted by local artists, on the streets of Lancaster. These pianos are accessible to the public 24/7 from mid-May through the end of September, making Lancaster the “Street Piano Capital of the World”. The objective of Keys for the City is to provide access to musical opportunity, foster creativity and build a sense of community among the public and, in the process, raise awareness for local music education initiatives.

As Keys enters it’s eighth year, I can’t help but remember that morning in 2010 when I was taught that, yes, indeed, pianos are living, breathing beings with souls.

It had rained the previous night, which presented an early challenge in what we were hoping would be a highly visible, four month public arts project. When we announced that we were going to place 20 pianos throughout town, available for everyone to play 24/7 for four months, everyone told us we were crazy. They told us that those pianos wouldn’t last a week before they would be vandalized. But we believed in Lancaster’s “better angels” and that our citizens were responsible and caring with enough civic pride that they would take care of these works of musical art. Maybe we were crazy, but to us it was not only a public art project, but a social experiment to test the power of music as a tool to bring people together.

We were also told that being exposed to the weather would quickly render them out of tune. We were willing to accept that possibility as this was not about the stage at Carnegie Hall but rather the streets of Lancaster, PA. Further, when making music, it’s not how many notes you play, it’s how you play the notes you play.

Even if they would become unplayable, they’d stand on their own as works of art. Many cities had sponsored art installations such as painted cows, (Harrisburg, PA) or crabs (Baltimore). Keys for the City represented a step beyond. Did the cows of Harrisburg “Moo”? Could the crabs of Baltimore…what sound exactly does a crab make?

Keys for the City went a step further in making this exhibit fully interactive. This ability to “engage” people in a very direct way was a powerful of example of what “art” is supposed to do- get a reaction and illicit a response from people.

Approaching the piano, I was a bit apprehensive due to the rain the previous night. As the piano technicians we consulted had warned, a good rain will cause the keys to swell and stick together rendering the instrument unplayable. We had planned for this…sort of. Eleven of the 20 pianos were under permanent cover, either under an awning in front of a local business or in another case, under a parking deck. The remaining pianos were not. These were equipped with portable plastic covers – think a giant, outdoor grill cover – which we hoped that citizens, neighbors, passers-by would use to cover them in the event of rain. This is where the social experiment came into play. Would the city “adopt” these pianos as their own and take care of them?  

This piano, on one of the city’s busiest streets, was the first we installed during the two day, mad rush to place all twenty. A big, sturdy, upright, it was colorfully designed by the staff of the sponsoring business, a local amusement park.  In the first week, the Library piano got a lot of attention. It seemed as if there was always someone playing it, an elderly woman, kids with their mothers or folks waiting for a meal in front of the soup kitchen, which is housed in the church next door.

As I approached the piano to check on its’ playability, there was a black man, probably in his mid 40’s, well dressed with thick black framed glasses, briefcase perched next to the piano bench, singing and playing beautifully, with real feeling. A handful of people, most, I assumed, on their way to work in the various government buildings, law firms and cafes that line N. Duke Street, stopped to listen for a few minutes before moving on.

It was a beautiful scene. Exactly the type of scene we imagined when we contemplated Keys for the City. An example of the power of music to bring people – often complete strangers – together to share a moment, a song, a magical moment. Magical moments like these were occurring around the pianos all summer long at all hours of the day and night among all types of people.

But there was business to attend to. I needed to assess how much damage the previous night’s rain had done to the pianos and had at least eight more of them to check out. Waiting for a natural point to interrupt him, I asked, “How’s it playing?”
He replied, with a bit of a grimace, “She’s hurting a bit today. I play her every morning on my way to work.” Obviously, he knew “her” and it pained him that “she” wasn’t feeling well that morning.

He spoke as if the piano were alive. I moved on to check the other pianos but the way he described that piano as a living, breathing being stuck with me. That was the first moment I ever considered a piano to be alive and that they had souls.

I made it a point to play, albeit not particularly well, at least a few every day throughout the summer and found it to be true. Like people, pianos feel, sound and play differently every day. Of course, these day-to-day variations were, to a large degree, a result of changing weather. But regardless of why, the fact remains. They are not simply a collection of wood, keys and cables. They are, in fact alive.

Every piano is unique in its feel, sound and personality. And like people, they have good days and not so good days. They can be moody. Some days can be somber while on other days, they are absolutely radiant and lively.

And as I learned on the streets of Lancaster, PA that morning back in 2010, pianos do, indeed, have souls.

To view the 2018 MFE “Keys for the City” pianos, visit:

On the Sidelines or in the Band: Participation Vs. Spectatorship and the Educational Process

One of the primary purposes of an educational institution is to instill in students not simply an understanding of specific knowledge (numbers, words or dates), but a lifelong love of learning. Further, it is safe to say that clearly the most effective way to learn the lessons taught through sports or other activities, is actually participating in those activities as opposed to simply observing them. Therefore, when evaluating our investment in school programs and extracurricular activities, consideration should be given to whether that activity is something you can continue to participate in and learn from long after graduation.

The purpose of this essay is to assess the effectiveness of football versus music as it applies to lifelong participation and learning.

Before proceeding, it is important to dispel the notion that team sports are unique in their potential to teach skills and lessons in teamwork and to build character in participants. The fact is there is no difference between the types of lessons learned and character traits obtained through participation in football or other team sports and involvement in a music ensemble or band. Skills such as collaboration, communication, discipline and personal responsibility are learned through all of these activities. That being the case, in tough economic times, when considering educational investment in football versus music programs, education and community leaders must consider additional issues and benefits of these activities, including the issue of whether these activities can be practiced for a lifetime.

Football is a sport where 96 percent of high school players will never again play the game after high school and less than one percent will do so after college. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) website, 5.8 percent, or less than one in seventeen of all high school senior boys, play interscholastic football. Of those, approximately, one in fifty, or 1.8 percent, will get drafted by an NFL team. Or, put another way, only eight in 10,000 or approximately 0.08 percent of high school seniors playing interscholastic football will eventually be drafted by an NFL team. ( Yes, life long lessons are learned during those high school years. But for 96 percent of participants, football’s ability to continue to teach for life ends after their final high school game. Further, none of those participants are women. While there are many sports in which you can participate for your entire life - swimming, golf and tennis - can be played into one’s seventies and eighties, these are not the sports in which we are investing the most resources. That distinction goes to football, an activity where participation for all but the most elite ends at age eighteen.

A few years ago, I found myself trudging on the elliptical machine at my local YMCA alongside a 70 year-old man.  He looked in great shape. He told me that he was not training simply to remain in shape. He was training to play baseball in a local over-50 league. And he’s a pitcher! People marveled that he was still playing competitively at age seventy, so much so that he was the subject of a feature story in the local newspaper. His playing at age seventy was quite an accomplishment and certainly noteworthy because he was the lone seventy-year-old in the league. No one came close to him in age.

Contrast this to the number of musicians who are still playing at age seventy, eighty or even ninety. While both music and sports can teach by participation and observation, music’s potential as a life-long educational tool is far more lasting and powerful because the opportunity to participate as opposed to simply observing as a spectator is possible regardless of age.

In short, there are infinitely more sixty, seventy, and eighty-year-olds still playing music together and, in the process, learning from each other, challenging themselves and keeping their minds sharp than there are twenty-five year-olds playing football. Further, an additional benefit of music is that an eighty-year-old bassist or pianist can play on equal footing with an eighteen-year-old guitarist. Not so in competitive sports, and in particular, football. That being the case, from a long-term educational return on investment perspective, music is far superior to football, if for no other reason than the ability to remain actively involved in music never ends.
If participation in an activity, as opposed to simply observing, is a more effective way to learn important lessons and achieve personal growth, we should invest in activities that allow active participation to the greatest extent possible for as long as possible. If music is an activity that one can actively engage in and thus continue to learn from for a lifetime, shouldn’t we be encouraging the development and funding of such programs? Shouldn’t the potential for lifelong participation and learning through music be strongly considered when compared to investment in sports such as football, where the opportunity to continue to actively participate is limited and usually ends with the final high school game?

If so, the answer is indisputable: Music results in a far better and more powerful long-term educational return on investment than football as it applies to the issue of lessons learned and personal growth achieved through participation. 

Sport as a Tool for Civil Rights: You Can’t Have it Both Ways

One of the more significant current sports stories relates to the declining number of subscribers to ESPN. The main thrust of the coverage of this decline has centered on the amount of television rights fees that sports leagues and college networks will be able to generate. Make no mistake, that impact will be significant as fewer subscribers translates into lower rights fees. 

But there is another story relating to this decline that bears mentioning. Specifically, the two primary reasons that have been given for the decline. The first is that consumption and viewing habits of consumers have been changing with increased ability to “slim down” cable packages or to simply “cut the cord” of cable completely. But it is the second reason that is the subject of this essay. Specifically, the claim that ESPN has been drifting towards a much more liberal bias in its’ reporting and features and, as a result of today’s highly polarized political climate, has been driving conservative viewers away.

Two examples in particular have been cited as proof of ESPN’s increasingly liberal bias. The first was the extensive coverage the network gave to San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s display of solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement by kneeling during the national anthem. The second was a nod to transgender rights by awarding its’  “Courage” award to Caitlyn Jenner at its annual ESPY Awards. Critics cried, “Sports should be a “safe zone” from politics and social issues.  I simply want to watch the games and not be bombarded with social commentary.”

But you can’t have it both ways. That horse left the barn decades ago. One of the most important, powerful and fundamental justifications for our society’s tremendous investment in sports is precisely because it has the potential to break down barriers and push for social change and civil rights. The fact is, using sports as a vehicle to highlight civil and human rights issues is as much a part of sports as the touchdown, home run or slam-dunk.

Sports have long been looked to as a powerful example for social change, particularly as it relates to diversity and civil rights. The fundamental principles that drive progress in these areas are fairness, tolerance, cooperation and equal opportunity.  Sports is a wonderfully effective platform through which these principles can be demonstrated.

One of the most important and significant events in the history of the struggle for civil rights was Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. During a time when blacks were considered, to put it mildly, second-class citizens by many and, more bluntly, less than human by others, the sight of Robinson playing alongside white teammates, all on equal footing on the field, was both instructional and inspirational.

Sports is an enterprise where race, creed and background have, for the most part, little impact on achievement and opportunity, at least compared to many other industries and enterprises. Coaches are, above all, equal opportunity “employers” interested not in the color of a wide receiver’s skin but in whether that player is able to contribute to the team’s success on the field. Or, to put it in a civil rights context, to play off the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, coaches do not judge players by the color of their skin, but by the content of their “game”. Coaches play the best players regardless of color or creed because they want to win above all else.  Their jobs and livelihoods depend on it.

Further, athletes themselves, for the most part, are unusually tolerant and accepting of other athletes. Like coaches, athletes want to win, and a player’s color or background doesn’t make a difference if he can help in achieving that result.

The sight of athletes working together toward a common goal, sharing in the sweat, pain and sacrifice, provides a powerful example of the possibilities for tolerance, diversity and integration. It’s a vivid display of how people, regardless of background, can work together to accomplish impressive things. Seeing black athletes perform on equal footing with their white teammates sparked a light that suggested the possibility that the same could be done in many other occupations and situations.  A lot of the progress we have made as a society, whether in business or every day life, has to do with examples of racial tolerance and acceptance demonstrated through sports. When the public sees athletes working together successfully, it provides an example for others to emulate.

While there are many things about organized, elite athletics in America that are twisted and out of perspective, sports’ power and potential to advance civil and human rights issues is not one of them. Sports’ fundamental value of fair play and equal opportunity parallels the fundamental values and principles of civil and human rights. The potential to highlight and advance these values may be sports’ most important and greatest strength.

In short, you can’t get away from sports being used as a platform for civil and human rights.

That said, you can’t on one hand justify our tremendous investment in sports as an educational and character building activity and laud it’s power to advance civil and human rights when the human rights issue is one you believe in and are committed to, but then claim that sports should be “value free” when the civil rights being advocated for, in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, transgender rights, and Colin Kaepernick, in supporting Black Lives Matter, happens to be a civil right that you may not believe in.

You can’t have it both ways. A civil right is a civil right.

So feel free to cancel your ESPN subscription. But don’t whine about the need for sports to be a “safe zone” from highlighting civil and human rights issues. Civil and human rights are all about fair play and equal opportunity. The concept of fair play and equal opportunity is sports’ most powerful and important value and characteristic. It’s part of sports’ DNA.

And thank goodness for that.

Music as a Platform for Integrated Learning

Integrated, interdisciplinary instruction is a teaching strategy that builds on the synergistic potential of combining knowledge of different disciplines as a catalyst for teaching across curriculums, yielding a clearer, broader, more thorough understanding of a discipline or disciplines. Through integrated study of various disciplines, students learn to apply information learned in one area to challenges in another area. Education leaders recognize that the ability to think broadly across disciplines is becoming an increasingly critical component of a quality 21st century education and are adjusting curriculums to reflect that reality.
Given these realities, rather than continuing to scale back or eliminate music educational  opportunities and offerings, educational and community leaders should seriously reconsider the role that music can play in meeting this critical educational need. Simply put, due to the fact that music is the universal language, it may well be the most powerful and effective educational tool to meet the challenge of providing students with quality integrated, interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

For example, according to a 2009 study by Chorus America, 81 percent of teachers believe choruses can help students make better connections between disciplines, as learning a new piece of music often involves an amalgamation of language, art, history, geography, math and more. (Chorus America, 2009, p. 15, 28)

Music can also deepen understanding of various subject matters. The study of the civil rights movement in the United States can be vividly enhanced by incorporating the songs used by demonstrators. Teaching students and having them actually perform a civil rights song such as “This Little Light of Mine” or “We Shall Overcome,” deepens students’ understanding of this era in American history. It brings the subject matter to life in a very vivid and participatory way.  

Another example is using songs and melodies to help teach reading. And yet another example is incorporating the music of a foreign culture into the study of that culture as a way to enhance understanding. Additionally, certain types of music instruction develop special reasoning and temporal reasoning skills, which are fundamental to understanding and using mathematical ideas and concepts. Finally, incorporating music into the broader curriculum through an integrated instructional approach can help create a school environment that is conducive to teacher and student success by fostering teacher innovation and a more positive and enjoyable professional culture.  

As explained on the website of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga’s Southeast Center for Education in the Arts, “Integrated arts lessons can be extremely rich and deeply layered learning experiences for students who experience them. Many teachers, parents, students and administrators believe that integrating the arts makes classrooms better learning environments. The arts provide a window to understanding the connections among all subject areas.” 

Or, as Charles Fowler explains in his 1996 book Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling. “When used well, the arts are the cement that joins all the disparate curricular areas together. The arts are valued for their interdisciplinary potential, and the result is a more cohesive curriculum in which students explore relationships among disciplines. Truth and understanding are recognized as a composite of perspectives, not just one partial and tentative view.” (p. 55)

As our schools face higher standards and expectations regarding the effectiveness with which they prepare children to succeed in the increasingly interrelated and complex global, knowledge-based economy and world community, the ability to think across disciplines, to incorporate sights, sounds, culture and information from various sources and disciplines into a cogent, broad-based body of knowledge is vitally important.   When it comes to integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum instruction, music’s potential to contribute in meaningful ways to the educational and academic mission of our schools is enormous and will continue to grow.  That being the case, educational and community leaders would be well served to consider music’s potential in this regard before scaling back music programs.