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The ‘tax money thing’ is gone, but how much does it matter to you?

So, Iowa athletics isn't self-sustaining anymore and so goes college sports accounting

This isn’t a big reveal or meant to be any sort of heat.

Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Vanessa Miller broke the story last Monday that the University of Iowa would loan the athletics department $50 million. When Covid-19 shut down the world last March, UI athletics director Gary Barta said the program stood to lose $70 million.

Barta was open about the need for a loan. There have been cuts — including layoffs — with men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics finishing their final seasons this spring. Women’s swimming and diving have the upper hand in a lawsuit with UI athletics and the program not only remains it still has the upper hand in the lawsuit.

So, UI athletics is no longer self-sustaining. I’ll give you a moment to mourn. You’re not mourning. You probably don’t care very much. (Iowa also announced it was permanently ending a $2 million annual payment from athletics to the school.)

Do you care? If more amenities like the Hawkeye Express go away, you’ll start notice, but what’s going to cause an uproar? Maybe nothing. It all should look roughly the same, except for the sports that got cut. (It was an old train, maybe there were maintenance issues maybe.)

That “UI athletics is self-sustaining” sentence was something else, though. It was a beauty of a cudgel against anyone who jumped into a social media conversation about UI athletics events that weren’t exactly what the UI was shooting for. It came up a lot after James Daniels Day last summer. “My tax dollars are going toward this!!!”

Iowa became self-sufficient in 2006 or 2008. How do I know this? I got on Twitter in 2008. It’s come up once or twice on the totally open worldwide messageboard. Usually, it was liberal folk, but conservatives jumped in, too. Everyone reaches for whatever outrage.

They would come at you for something and you could unplug it with a simple “Iowa athletics is self-sustaining and doesn’t use tax payer money.” This was pretty awkward last summer when everyone found out how much the strength coach made. The counter would be that Iowa was crazy to pay the strength coach that much. Then, you’d provide a link to the top-paid college football strength coaches in the country and the argument would be over. Wait, it wouldn’t be over. It’s never over, no matter how much rightness you believe is on your side.

So, good little thing to stem the knee-jerk “taxpayer money” complaint. The UI did this, too. It was the last sentence in any release on contracts or money, “The UI is self-sustaining and doesn’t use taxpayer money.”

If “self sufficiency” was a real thing, I could totally see how UI athletics administrators, past and present, would take pride in it. When the checks are fat, it’s always good to remind the world that it’s your money. (There are 20 to 23 self-sustaining athletics departments around the country. Just not being in that club, does sort of suck for the brand.)

What if self sufficiency was a simple accounting exercise? For example, what if the accounting for this self sufficiency was as simple as what the UI charges the athletics department for out-of-state scholarships?

Accounting methods are a variable with college sports. From the little bit of reading I’ve done, nothing seems standard. The Hawkeye Express shut down doesn’t mean UI athletics is broke, and maybe a different way of accounting (the one you hear the most often is “transfer-price”). The “arms race” has been fueled by incentivized spending. “We have money, we’d better use it.”

In February — and at the behest of a federal court — Iowa announced it has backed off the decision to cut women’s swimming and diving. But the four women who sued Iowa on Title IX grounds believe the UI is out of balance with roster opportunities for women that they would like to see women’s wrestling or rugby added as scholarshipped sports.

Barta and UI people looked at the budget, the accounting and the future and decided women’s swimming and diving had to go. A court told them uh uh. So, the longer this presses, the more and more people are going to want to look at the accounting.

Christina Kaufman is another one of the swimmers who initiated the Title IX lawsuit last September. Her dad is Mark Kaufman. He’s the founder of Athletico Physical Therapy, a $2 billion company. He’s active with the group “Save Iowa Sports,” which has raised $3 million and wants to help keep the other sports that remain cut.

Kaufman told the Des Moines Register “Save Iowa Sports” has reached out to the UI “with checkbooks ready” and has heard nothing.

If the UI can’t or won’t open the books and show why those sports are cut, what happens then?

It’s fascinating. Kinnick Stadium will look the same in September, so I’m not sure how much this topic rings out. To me, a peaceful resolution would be preferred, but what would that look like and is it even possible now?

Women’s wrestling belongs at the UI. I’d hate for it to be born from this. I’d like for the UI to enthusiastically welcome it. I’m sure it will. It’s wrestling and this is Iowa.

Still, feels like a long ways away with a couple more stories coming from the courts.

Marc Morehouse

22 years as the Iowa football beat writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Holy bleep, that's a long damn time. Now, I'm a podcaster/writer/pop cult guru at Hawkeyepodcast.com. Yes, I wrote "guru," but I didn't mean it in a pretentious way. Sincere thanks for reading, listening and hopping on board!
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