EDITORIAL: For Penn State athletics, doing right thing comes with serious economic cost

York Dispatch
Sandy Barbour, right, is vice president for athletics at Penn State. She said the decision to fund scholarships for spring sports athletes who elect to return next season was an "easy" one.
  • Spring senior college athletes did not compete in 2020 because of COVID-19.
  • Penn State said it will fund the scholarships for 2020 seniors who return in 2021.
  • The cost of funding those scholarships is expected to run at about $700,000.

It’s the fair thing to do.

There’s really not much doubt about that.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and through no fault of their own, spring sports senior athletes around the nation were deprived of their opportunities for one final collegiate season.

In response, Penn State has announced that the university will fund the scholarships of spring sports senior athletes who wish to return next year for their final season of eligibility.

Shortly after the spring seasons were canceled, the NCAA instituted a waiver to allow athletes on those teams to return.

BARBOUR: Penn State will fund scholarships of spring sports senior athletes who return

“We made a decision very early on that,” said Sandy Barbour, PSU’s vice president of athletics. “Should the NCAA make it possible for spring sports seniors to return, that we would give them that opportunity and that we would fund their scholarships at the same rate as they were on this spring.”

Barbour did not say how many seniors have decided to return next year but indicated the cost would be around $700,000.

“That decision was an easy one,” Barbour said. “There was never really any question.”

Forgive us if we have some doubt about just how easy that decision was.

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Uncertain future looms: After all, $700,000 isn’t exactly chump change, especially during a time when the financial future of college athletics is uncertain, at best.

After all, Penn State had already reported a small dip in revenues for the 2018-19 athletic season, as well as a drop of $6 million in profits in its annual report filed with the NCAA. Overall revenues for PSU athletics were $164.5 million in its most recently completed fiscal year, a decline of about $840,000 from 2017-18.

The packed crowds at Beaver Stadium help to keep the Penn State athletic department afloat.

More than 60% of that total revenue (about $105.5 million) came from the football program, with much of that revenue generated by the 100,000-plus fans who annually trek to Beaver Stadium seven or eight times each season. 

Now, however, because of COVID-19, there’s serious doubt about whether there will even be a PSU football season in 2020. There has already been some speculation that the 2020 football season could be moved to the spring of 2021.

If there is a 2020 Nittany Lions’ season, it’s hard to imagine that the crowds will be as large and the revenue will be as sizable. Some polls have already shown that, even when crowds are allowed back into stadiums, some folks will still elect to stay home, out of an abundance of caution.

College officials have also already told the Trump administration that there won’t be any college football games until the general student population returns to the campuses.

None of that is good news at Penn State, where the football program is the undisputed cash cow that keeps the entire athletic ship afloat.

That’s why PSU’s decision to fund the scholarships of 2020 spring sports seniors may not have been the slam-dunk move that Barbour said it was.

It certainly wasn’t for Wisconsin, which, like PSU, also belongs to the Big Ten Conference and also has an athletic department of similar size.

The Badgers’ athletic director, Barry Alvarez, said his school will not fund the scholarships for 2020 spring sports seniors, saying they should instead “graduate and move on with” their lives.

That may sound a bit harsh in terms of justice, but in terms of economics, it makes sense.

PSU should be applauded: Yes, Penn State should be applauded for fulfilling its commitment to its spring sports seniors.

That was the right thing to do. The vast majority of those young men and women won’t be going on to professional athletic careers. As a result, their senior college seasons mark the culmination of their competitive athletic careers. They deserve those opportunities.

Still, doing the right thing will come with a rather significant cost during tumultuous economic times in college athletics.