Inside a Penn Graduate Class in the Business of College Sports

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PHILADELPHIA — “I’m having a hard time understanding,” said Rich Michal. “Do women really do better?”

Michal, a senior vice president at the Purdue Research Foundation, recently sat in a classroom on the University of Pennsylvania campus, surrounded by more than a dozen other administrators from across academia.

He looked at a slide, blown up on a screen in front of the class, showing athlete notes since the NCAA last year allowed them to make money outside of their college scholarships.

The data, Professor Karen Weaver explained, showed that women received more deals than men (although male athletes receive more total money). She added: “That’s why we’re here — to help you all understand how things are changing.”

The class is part of a doctoral program in higher education management that targets mid-career executives looking to advance, and many hope to become college presidents one day. They fly in on the weekend to study education policy and budgeting.

This weekend the class had a two-day seminar on something different: sports.

For the two-day class, Weaver starts with the basics, including the role of the NCAA and the various divisions in college sports, as she often deals with people who haven’t taken any sports.

But the fact that her curriculum exists, Weaver said, is testament to athletics’ growing influence on campuses. Winning teams mean fame; scandals can bring down presidents; boosters are an increasingly powerful constituency; soccer coaches collect millions for not coaching. Weaver covers all of that, but she also wants to give her students an in-depth introduction to NIL rules, Title IX compliance, and the Big Ten’s generous deal for new media rights.

“There’s an admission that you can’t become a college president without really trying to wrap your head around athletics,” Weaver said in an interview after class. “And it’s especially important if you haven’t taken any sports.”

Michal added: “Will the NCAA survive in its current form or will it evolve as the Big Ten gets bigger and there is even more money? It’s all fascinating and very important for everyone in the class to know. Karen helps raise awareness.”

At one point during class, Weaver raised the issue of the new media rights deal signed by the Big Ten worth about $1 billion a year. She asked the students what they would do with the money if they were Big Ten presidents. “Please don’t spend everything on the football coach,” she joked.

The answers provided a cross-section of views on the purpose and direction of college sports.

Kristina Alimard, chief operating officer of the Investment Management Company at the University of Virginia, raised her hand and offered, “As the capitalist in the room, the only people who want to go to XYZ school for the women’s swim team are female swimmers. While a lot of kids say, ‘I want to go to XYZ school because of the football and basketball games.’ I would spend as much money as I needed to maintain my dominance in any sport that encourages enrollment in my school. ”

Rebecca Sale, senior director of education in the department of health policy and management at Columbia University, said, “I would throw money into women’s football. I think you can attract people to women’s football. If you could afford a football stadium, you could invest in something else, are we trying to create equality?”

“Is there anything, beyond moral and ethical issues, that says you should spend that money on female sports, or can they take it all and spend it on whatever they want?” asked Tim Folan, a senior associate athletic director at Penn .

They could, Weaver replied, spend it on whatever they wanted.

When later asked where she thought college sports would go, Weaver said she was concerned about college basketball because football is the main source of income. The College Football Playoff operates outside the jurisdiction of the NCAA, she noted, citing $13 million in salaries for coaches, prompting a Division III administrator in the classroom to say, “How are you doing? [the players] still student athletes? How do we even have this conversation in the context of higher education?” (The administrator was not authorized by her university to speak publicly.)

Weaver, 64, played college hockey and then coached for several years before landing a job as an associate athletic director in Minnesota. She was then the athletic director at Penn State Abington, a Division III school. She graduated from the Penn program in 2009 and wrote her dissertation on the launch of the Big Ten Network.

“I was fascinated because I thought, ‘These university presidents don’t know anything about media. What are they doing?’ When I was writing and interviewing them, they weren’t too sure how successful it was going to be, but oh my gosh, it changed everything.” A few years later, she pitched adding sports to the Penn program and began teaching it in 2012. (There are other similar degrees, but Weaver believes Penn’s is the only one that offers a sports component.)

Some advocates for college sports reform preach about reducing the money involved or preserving different student-athlete ideals. Weaver’s approach isn’t so much to edit the direction of college sports as to accept its reality. Her course is less philosophical and more practical.

There are some people in academia — often the non-sports fans, Weaver said — who tend to stay quiet when sports hit their campuses. But the goal of her lesson is to make those people feel comfortable enough to participate in those conversations.

As she told her students, “Because of the speed at which this environment is changing, every leadership team needs to have this conversation: ‘Where do we fit into this transformative era?’ I hope some of you feel like you can go back to your campuses and say, ‘Let’s talk about this; let’s think about this.’ ”

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