Write this in the sky: the problem with the Michigan Athletic Department isn’t that it blundered the basketball student season-ticket process, nor is it the change in the football ticket policy. It isn’t that it has painted the sky with its own name or that it has marketed nearly every marketable piece of tradition left in this school.
It’s certainly not the misguided assertion that somehow the Athletic Department is making too much money.
The problem is that, at a public non-profit institution, that money is supposed to support some mission. The problem is that instead of supporting some mission, the Athletic Department is throwing money into the troposphere; meanwhile, it won’t shell out the money that could protect summer campers, entrusted to the department’s care, from abuse.
Last Tuesday, Athletic Camp Administrator Katie Miranto said that the department doesn’t run thorough background checks on its summer camp counselors and doesn’t provide any sexual-abuse prevention training. Currently, the department only checks for crimes committed in the state of Michigan, even though a third of its counselors are from out of state.
“I can’t even describe to you how many gaps there are and how nervous I get over the summer,” Miranto said at a forum Tuesday.
By now, the line between the Michigan Athletic Department and a corporation is microscopic. And that’s not necessarily bad; it’s a reality of competing in current college athletics.
Yet to the critics, the Athletic Department suffers from a greed problem. If any year has symbolized the current department’s oversized spending and money-grabbing, it is this year, right? This department has introduced a temporary giant Kraft noodle advertisement in Michigan Stadium, spent thousands on a controversial skywriting marketing campaign and oversold the Michigan basketball student section, so that the students who paid for guaranteed tickets to each basketball game would no longer be guaranteed tickets to each basketball game.
But those critics that demonize the department’s profits are missing the point. The problem isn’t that the Athletic Department has chosen to fund a skywriting campaign. The problem is that the Athletic Department has chosen to fund a skywriting campaign rather than pay to protect vulnerable children. How did we get here?
The money isn’t the problem. Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that college athletic departments make their money off athletes who are not allowed to profit off their labor (and yes, this is a major point to ignore), more money is not a bad thing. For a public institution that receives taxpayer money, more money from any source other than the taxpayers is a good thing. The fact that the Michigan Athletic Department can sustain itself is a very good thing.
Money funds scholarships and maintains teams. It builds the buildings that bring in the recruits. The Classics Department wants more money to improve its facilities and hire the best professors. The Athletic Department does too.
So when the department pays thousands of dollars to put its name in the sky, the only question worth asking is: Is this profitable?
Michigan’s chief marketing officer, Hunter Lochmann, says yes. After criticism of the skywriting campaign, Lochmann posted several responses on Twitter.
“When it was all said and done, each message cost about $100,” he wrote in one message. “The ROI? the best marketing tactic we do each year.”
That sounds reasonable. And it is not without precedent. Before skywriting, there were helicopters: former Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham had a helicopter advertise for Michigan football over a Detroit Tigers World Series game in 1968. The reaction was negative then, too, but today no one objects that Canham’s marketing efforts modernized and funded the future of Michigan athletics.
Then came Tuesday, when Miranto exposed holes in the Athletic Department’s background checks.
The revelation was troubling. The reasoning was predictable.
Miranto said the department didn’t perform broader background checks because they couldn’t afford it.
“That is a huge area of concern right now, but the way the system is built, it’s really our only option for cost reasons, for how fast we need to turn the background check around,” Miranto said.
And there’s the problem. Money is good for the Athletic Department if it serves some greater mission. That mission should go further than just funding the $850,000 base salary that Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon will earn this year. The mission should also go further than the acquisition of even more money. Modern athletic departments aren’t corporations, even if they are now nearly indistinguishable. There are no shareholders to report to and no dividends to issue.
To return to the Classics Department example, its mission is to educate students and improve its academic standing to contribute to Michigan’s general reputation. That’s why it wants to improve facilities and hire the best professors.
The Athletic Department’s mission, in theory, is the same: to serve its student-athletes and to serve as a tool that promotes the University as a whole. And the money is important, as it helps the University continue to project a tradition of winning.
But when the Athletic Department neglects a broader background check each of which would cost less than say, oh, a sky-written message, that represents some deeply misplaced priorities. It has strayed from the mission and diluted the very brand it seeks to uphold when the department failed to protect its most vulnerable constituents. It has failed, so much so that Miranto said she has trouble sleeping at night due to the security lapses. Not exactly a vote of confidence from the woman in charge of running the summer camps. If something terrible were to happen, it would be pretty clear where the blame is.
The great thing about having a $137.5 million budget and a projected surplus of $8.9 million is that it can pay for things that really matter. Things like protecting campers from abuse. That, above all, is what all the “Wow experiences” and Kraft noodles and flyovers are supposed to pay for.
But instead of protecting the children entrusted into its care, the Athletic Department was too busy painting its name in the sky.
-Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @zhelfand