Funding Athletics at Brown

by William Underwood & Sam Bresnick

published May 1, 2015

On March 7, the Brown men’s basketball team concluded its 2014–15 season with a road loss to Harvard, the eventual Ivy League champions, sinking the Bears’ overall record to 13–18 and locking the team into a tie for last place in the conference with Penn. The loss was the final disappointment in a season that included highs (such as an upset win over Providence College), many lows (including multiple five-game losing streaks), and instability within the program, evidenced by the departures of an assistant coach and three players over the course of the season, including the team’s leading scorer.

The futility of the 2014–15 Brown men’s basketball team is not an outlier in the school’s athletics department. Indeed, Brown’s 38 athletic programs—the second highest number in the Ivy League and the fourth highest number in the country—as of 2014 had the fewest Ivy League championships in the prior decade: 15, or four fewer than seventh-place Dartmouth and 90 fewer than first-place Princeton. The Brown University Athletics Department Strategic Plan 2014–2019, released last fall, responded to this poor record, which includes the lowest average overall finish in the annual Ivy League standings over the past decade, by arguing, “we owe it to our students, and the tradition of excellence at the university, to change [that record].”

How to do so, exactly? The Strategic Plan offered by the Athletics Department includes references to competitive salaries for program staff, improvements to facilities, financial aid matching for incoming student-athletes, and increased funding, given that Brown currently has lower expenses than any other department in the Ivy League. As the report observes, there is a direct correlation between expenses and program success in college athletics. Spending more means winning more.

In 2013-14, the Brown men’s basketball program received $208,792 in total funding—less than men’s rowing, men’s ice hockey, and football—but received $16,061 per participant, the highest total of any program at the University. Most of that money is spent on personnel, uniforms, travel expenses, and recruiting. For comparison, Harvard—the Ivy League champion—spent $326,691 on men’s basketball in the same year, or $20,418 per participant. Beyond those numbers, it is difficult to determine how money in the Athletics Department is allocated.

The US Department of Education’s report on equity in athletics documents that $7,682,470 of Brown’s 2014 athletic expenses—totaled at $19,547,026—is not earmarked for specific programs. Even more frustrating is the impossibility of viewing how much money is actually lost. The Athletics Department operates independently from the University, and is reimbursed for its expenses at the end of each season.

So, if the Athletics Department incurs roughly 20 million dollars in expenses, for example, and only makes ten million dollars in revenue on its own, the University will reimburse the Department that difference. As a result, Brown’s expenses and revenues are reported to be exactly equal, both across the Department and within each individual program. This process hides the Department’s large losses from the public eye.

In a report on revenues and expenses in Division I athletics, the NCAA observed that Division I-FCS programs (of which Brown is one) generated in 2012 a median net revenue of negative $10,219,000, not including Direct or Indirect Institutional Support—the money given by the University to offset an athletics department’s losses. It seems likely, then, that the Athletics Department loses money, given that its expenses exceed the median Division I-FCS program by more than $5,000,000. Yet, the way that athletics expenses are reported occludes any certainty.


The Theater Arts Department is also underfinanced. In a recent class, a professor within the Department openly told students in the class that the Department would be letting every adjunct professor go due to financial constraints. In the Spring of 2014, graduate students at Brown protested a cut in financial support that left many students without funding beyond their fifth year of study. What justifies that Brown field the fourth largest athletics program in the country while doctoral students are unable to secure funding for their final years and adjunct professors are let go due to financial constraints?

The Athletics Department’s Strategic Plan gives a number of reasons, most of which fall under two general categories: community building and the experience of the student-athlete. The first of these rests on the claim that successful athletics cultivates pride among the university community. “Competing in NCAA and other postseason championships,” the plan argues, “brings positive attention to both the athletics program and the University, while serving as a platform to mobilize an entire parents, friends and alumni base.” When athletics are promoted on campus, the report goes on to suggest, the University can more easily engage alumni and student networks. Yet, observing the near empty stands at many Brown University sporting events, that mobilization remains unfulfilled. Brown seems much more likely to rally around the open curriculum than the football team.

More convincing than the financial benefit of athletics or its contribution to the cohesion of the Brown community is the possibility that athletics bring students to campus who represent an array of backgrounds and perspectives that might be excluded from Brown otherwise. Importantly, too, these students—roughly 900 of Brown’s 6,000 students–gain in athletics participation “an enriching educational experience” that serves “as a complement to the classroom for learning, collaborative problem solving, teamwork, accountability, maturation and growth.” That’s the story offered by the Athletics Department Strategic Plan.

Increasingly, however, the great value of the student-athletic experience has come under scrutiny. The Pac-12 Conference—one of the NCAA’s wealthiest—recently released a study finding that Pac-12 athletes routinely spend 50 hours per week on their sport and are often too tired to study. One Brown men’s basketball player reported practice being scheduled at 6 am the morning before a third of the team had a midterm at 9 am.

The Brown Daily Herald outlined last week how Katie Flynn—head coach of Brown’s softball team—has verbally abused players throughout her tenure at the school. Flynn publicly humiliated team members in front of their peers, making recurring comments about players’ bodies. Only three of the team’s 12 underclassmen in 2012 remain on the team. The report is troubling, and it is tempting to regard the case of Coach Flynn and the softball team as an isolated, extreme incident. Yet the atmosphere described by the Herald pervades other programs as well.

The Brown men’s basketball program displays similar problems. Current and former players who spoke to the Independent anonymously told multiple stories of how head coach Mike Martin mismanages injuries, punishes players who privilege their academic work, and creates a culture of distrust and hostility within his program. One former player recalled how he was unable to enjoy any success the team attained because of how it reflected on Coach Martin. “I didn’t want to win if it made him look good.”

Multiple players described how Coach Martin fails to develop meaningful relationships with his players, and consistently does “whatever he thinks it takes to win”—though Brown’s record might suggest otherwise—despite the toll this attitude takes on players. It comes as no surprise that so many players leave the team. The departure of three players from the 2014–15 team echoes previous years, in which even seasoned upperclassmen receiving significant minutes of gametime elected to leave the team rather than continue to play for Martin. Players recalled how they were unable to complain to higher-ups in the Athletics Department, assistant coaches, or even trainers who enabled Martin to pressure injured players to compete. Is this the “student-athlete experience” the Strategic Plan invokes to authorize almost $20 million in athletics expenses every year to fund an uncompetitive department?

The point of this, again, is not to argue that Brown should defund its Athletics Department. However, it’s difficult to argue, as the Strategic Plan does, that the University should augment the athletics budget when the Department exhibits little ability to spend money effectively. It’s hard to tally the intangible value provided by the Athletics Department, but it’s clear there have been significant losses in terms of players’ health and happiness, as well as university funds. Recouping those losses, and executing the Athletics Department’s vision to “develop a high degree of trust and respect throughout the campus community,” begins with credibly disclosing the cost of athletics at Brown.