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  • Writer's pictureWill Shingleton

Why UT's boosters are out of line

Back in 2018, I produced an episode of Green and Gold called "Dollars".

In it, I interviewed a guy named Jacob Ludwikowski, who (a quick Google search tells me) is still the Associate Athletic Director for Development at the University of South Alabama. Back then, I reached out to Jacob in much the same way I still reach out to guests: cold-emailing him and asking nicely. He was very gracious about the whole thing. He certainly didn't have to grant me, a literal newbie, any time out of his very busy day, but he did. And that meant a lot, because I really wanted to hear what Jacob had to say.

And so, it turned out, did everyone else. It turned into one of the best episodes out of that series, and over two years later, I'm still thinking about what Jacob told me.

Especially this week.

Jacob's fancy title somewhat belies the main function of his job; while he is tasked with "developing" the athletic program, that development, in practice, is primarily of the economic variety. Jacob is in charge of USA's Jaguar Athletic Fund, which is the primary driver of any initiative the athletic department puts forth. For instance, when I spoke to him back in the fall of 2018, he and his department were in the process of raising money to build Hancock Whitney Stadium, the on-campus football facility that just opened last year.

Every university has a Jacob, or, in some cases, multiple Jacobs. I got in touch with him for that show because I wanted to know what fundraising on that level is actually like, and what a program like UAB could really hope to accomplish through raising money. The how, what, and why of Jacob's job was interesting enough to carry entire episode, but there was another element that held my attention even more.

The who.

Jacob's job is necessary because with the way collegiate athletics are currently structured, there has to be a liaison between the school receiving the checks and the people writing them. It's that second group in particular that's made plenty of headlines this offseason. First, there were rumors of a cabal of Auburn boosters being behind the campaign to get Gus Malzahn fired. Whether or not you believe that to be the case, the fact that it's even a question speaks to the power of the donor in today's athletic landscape.

Now, it's Texas.

And Texas is what happens when you well and truly take the lid off.

In case you haven't heard, an article published in The Texas Tribune this week chronicled a series of emails the University of Texas has received from boosters since the school decided to stop playing "The Eyes of Texas" at its football games. Whether or not you feel the song should be played, the emails themselves are worth a read, because they highlight what I feel to be a much more obvious problem. In the emails, many of the alumni threaten to pull their funding to the school over the cancellation of the song.

I do want to interject here that The University of Texas is the unquestioned heaviest hitter of all when it comes to athletics economics, so it would probably survive without these poor dears' money.

But most schools wouldn't. When I spoke to Jacob, he told me that USA's funding came from three primary sources: 40 percent from alumni or people in the area, 40 percent from former student-athletes, and 20 percent from events.

If you do a quick bit of math, you reach the reality that 100 percent of USA's fundraising comes from people who could be classified as "boosters", an ambiguous term that not even the NCAA can fully explain without tripping over themselves in the process. At USA, there are different fundraising "levels" based on the amount being donated, and with those different levels come different perks. A "tier three" booster might get a cool new mug or a calendar, whereas a "tier one" booster might get his/her own box in the stadium they helped pay for. In theory, this idea, which is common across most athletic programs, incentivizes giving more money to the program.

But it also creates a "shareholder" mentality that I believe sits at the root of the issue at Texas.

When someone gives money to a university, what is it that they think they're paying for? A suite? A dining hall for the players? More wins from their favorite team? What return are they expecting on their investment?

I would argue that in many cases, the real answer is something much more intangible: power. All too often, boosters treat universities like corporations, where buying a certain percentage of the company grants one a certain degree of influence. The logic seems to follow: I put in more, so I should get more out.

The issue with that is that universities are not (or at least shouldn't be) comparable to corporations. In a world where students are given "education" as the only compensation for what amounts to working a full-on 9-5 job in addition to their studies, a university's priorities should not be directed by outside economic actors. These are schools, not Fortune 500 companies. They have fundamentally different goals to each other. They're certainly not taxed the same.

The Texas emails show that not only do these boosters expect to have their voices heard, but also to have them acted upon. In their heart of hearts, I believe that they think they've bought a seat at the table.

They should not be allowed to continue in this line of thinking.

Donations to athletic departments, in most cases, are classified as tax-deductible charitable contributions. Funds like the one at South Alabama are created as 501(c)(3)'s, which means that anything donated to it would be classified as a "gift."

But here's the thing: if something is truly given as a gift, you don't expect anything from it in return.

That's the lesson that boosters at Texas and indeed around the country must learn: their economic heft does not entitle them to do and say whatever they wish. While many of the names in the Texas case were (regrettably) redacted, there will still be significant fallout. The consequences for some of the truly awful things written to the University these people claim to love are as of yet unclear, but they are coming. Whoever the Jacob is at Texas, he/she is going to have an interesting next few months as the university decides what its plan is.

My suggestion? Tell the boosters what they've always feared you'd say: we don't want your money.

If they thought it bought them the right to be racist, then they've been wasting it, anyway.

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