Inside a Penn graduate class in the business of college sports


PHILADELPHIA — “I’m having trouble understanding,” Rich Michal said. “Are women really doing better?”

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

He was looking at a slide, blown up on a screen in front of the class, that showed endorsements for athletes since the NCAA last year began allowing them to earn money outside of their scholarships.

The data, professor Karen Weaver explained, showed that women were receiving more deals than men (though 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 caters to midcareer administrators looking to advance, with many hoping to be university presidents one day. They fly in on weekends to study education policy and budgeting.

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

For the two-day class, Weaver starts with the basics, including the role of the NCAA and the different divisions in college sports, because she is often dealing with people who haven’t followed sports.

But the fact that her curriculum exists, Weaver said, is a testament to athletics’ growing influence on campuses. Winning teams mean notoriety; scandals can bring down presidents; boosters are an increasingly powerful constituency; football coaches are collecting millions not to coach. Weaver covers all of that, but she also wants to give her students a nuts-and-bolts primer on NIL rules, Title IX compliance and the Big Ten’s lavish new media rights deal.

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

Added Michal: “Will the NCAA survive in its current form or have to evolve if the Big Ten gets bigger and there’s even more money? It’s all fascinating and really important for everybody in the class to know. Karen helps make us aware.”

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

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

Kristina Alimard, chief operating officer for the University of Virginia’s Investment Management Company, raised her hand and offered: “As the resident capitalist in the room, the only people who want to go to XYZ school for the women’s swim team are female swimmers. Whereas tons of kids are like, ‘I want to go to XYZ school because of the football games and basketball games.’ I would spend as much money as I needed to maintain dominance in whatever sport is driving enrollment at 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 soccer. I think you could attract people to women’s soccer. If you could pay for a football stadium, you could invest in something else. Do we try to create equity?”

“Is there anything, outside of moral and ethical issues, that says you have to 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 answered, spend it on whatever they want.

Asked later where she thought college sports was headed, Weaver said she worried about college basketball because football is the main driver of revenue. The College Football Playoff operates outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction, she noted, and mentioned $13 million salaries for coaches, which prompted one Division III administrator in the class to say: “How are [the players] still student-athletes? How are we even having this conversation in the context of higher education?” (The administrator was not authorized by her university to speak publicly.)

Weaver, 64, played college field hockey and then coached for several years before landing a job as an associate athletic director at Minnesota. She was then 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 was like: ‘These college presidents don’t know anything about media. What are they doing?’ When I was writing and interviewing them, they weren’t so sure how successful it was going to be, but , oh my gosh, it did change everything.” A few years later, she pitched adding sports to the Penn program and started teaching it in 2012. (There are other similar degree programs, but Weaver believes Penn’s is the only one that offers a sports component.)

Some advocates for reforming college sports preach about reducing the money involved or preserving various ideals of the student-athlete. Weaver’s approach is less to editorialize about the direction of college sports than 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 come up on their campuses. But the goal of her class is to make those people feel comfortable enough to start participating in those conversations .

As she told her students: “Every single leadership team, because of how fast this environment is changing, needs to have this conversation: ‘Where do we fit in this transformative era?’ I’m hopeful 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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Jorge Oliveira

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