In our culture we tend to idolize macho—probably too much. There have been some discussions recently about what some have called “toxic masculinity,” the specific attitudes and behaviors that are associated with the male image and that we now recognize as anti-social and potentially destructive. Certainly there are elements within the macho cluster, including protective, defensive, competitive, and possessive impulses, that have been misinterpreted and pushed to extremes such as domestic violence and rape. This essay is not about those factors. It is, rather, about hubris.
I have lived in Albuquerque, home of the University of New Mexico, for most of the past forty years. In that time there have been repeated financial scandals in which one subdivision within the University has significantly misused funds or overspent its budget. Has the Engineering Department cooked its books and run up huge unapproved expenses? Biological Sciences? Education or Philosophy? No, in virtually all cases, the profligate subdivision has been the UNM Athletics Department.
In eight of the past ten years UNM Athletics has posted deficits, exceeding a budget that now stands at about 33 million dollars a year. It currently owes the main campus more than 4.4 million dollars. The former Athletic Director resigned under a cloud in June of 2017, after 11 years in office. The State Attorney General has now charged him with various crimes, including using school funds to take six donors and employees on a golf junket to Scotland, massively overpaying the basketball coach, allowing others to misuse UNM purchasing accounts, failing to charge friends and supporters for the use of luxury suites in the basketball arena, and attempting to cover up most of the above actions against an expected audit. There does not seem to be any similar legal liability anticipated for the higher-level UNM administrators who have apparently looked the other way for a decade or more. UNM has a collection of historical internal audit reports that goes back to at least 2003, a history that does not include any comprehensive financial and operational audits of UNM Athletics. In the meantime, UNM is constructing a 50,000 square-foot, 35 million dollar upgrade to its main gym.
In case you’re thinking that I am making my point by focusing on the one university most familiar to me personally, let me expand the example by referring to a study by Stephanie Hughes and Matt Shank, published in the International Journal of Sport Marketing and Management in 2008. The article was titled “Assessing the Impact of NCAA Scandals: An Exploratory Analysis”, and the first sentence is damning: “It is difficult to open up the daily newspaper without finding mention of some type of scandalous behavior being exhibited by individuals associated with athletic departments on college campuses.” In case this wording only reminds you about the athletic scandals that most often reach the national media, the ones involving violent misbehavior by individual athletes, you should know that those events are less common than scandals involving misuse of university or donor funds. This study provides a good analysis of the types of financial and social pressures that might lead many athletic administrators to violate the law or NCAA rules, and that likewise might encourage general college administrators to ignore athletic infractions (not evem mentioning providing common excesses such as seven-figure salaries for coaches while they reduce academic professors to underpaid adjunct status).
Oddly, the report ends with the recommendation that “college administrators must reconsider the adoption of a ‘win at all cost’ mentality which encourages member NCAA schools to recycle athletically successful coaches and administrators who have previously been associated with inappropriate or unethical behavior at other institutions.” We might wonder why the study would bother to make such an obvious suggestion, but anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the history of athletic competition knows that such logic is all-too-often ignored. In the bigger picture, the situation at UNM Athletics is not an uncommon outlier in the university athletic world.
In the economic life of the United States there is another macho establishment that is even larger than our entire national involvement with athletics. That is what President Eisenhower referred to, in his famous farewell speech, as the “military-industrial complex”. It is understandable that what we call our defense budget would increase during any period of war, as it did, by a multiple of four, in 1942, the first year of our involvement in World War II. As that example demonstrates, a rise in the defense budget can even be a positive thing in some ways—the massive 1942 jump in federal spending is almost universally credited with pulling the United States out of the Great Depression. It also made it possible for us to prevail against the expansive axis powers.
With such caveats recognized, it is clear that we haven’t paid much attention to our four-star president’s admonition since 1961, when he publicly and clearly warned us to guard against the influence and growth of the defense complex. By that time the military budget had experienced two expected declines, the largest by far after the end of World War II and a much smaller one after the Korean War. Then the so-called Cold War began and the military industrial complex hit its stride, realizing the usefulness of an unending external and poorly-defined threat. In 1956 spending was back to Korean War levels.
Since then the war budget has continued an almost unbroken and often inexplicable growth, declining only during three brief periods. There was a minimal decline in the early 1970s as the War in Vietnam was winding down and some politicians tried talking about a “peace dividend”. All that proved illusory, of course. A peace dividend was even more anticipated when the USSR collapsed in 1989, removing our primary Cold War adversary, and over the next six years defense funding declined by the enormous amount of almost 14 percent. That’s down 14 percent total, not the annual rate. Then it started rising again, and then the Bush administration and the War on Terror began. After that growth averaged 9.6 percent per year for the next nine years. This was a new unending and poorly-defined threat, and it has served the defense establishment well.
There was one more period of decline after that, an overall period of government austerity enforced by the standoff between the Obama administration and a GOP-majority congress. That was the budget sequestration arranged in January of 2013 to satisfy the demands of the Budget Control Act of 2011—I’d rather not have to deal with the details of that! The end result was two-year reductions in both non-defense and defense spending, the latter dropping by almost 3 percent a year, a reduction so huge that defense lobbyists and their allies in Congress complained incessantly about being starved almost to death, despite defense industry profits remaining very high. Note: all of the above numbers are based on figures adjusted to current dollars by the federal Office of Management and Budget
What’s clear is that our Department of Defense is like a university athletic department, only to an extreme, constantly demanding more income, and famous for stories of financial mismanagement and, shall we say, excessive contractor reimbursements. Yet, there’s more. In 1990 the Congress of the United States, which theoretically controls all federal expenditures, passed the Chief Financial Officers Act. This law requires all federal department and agencies to develop auditable accounting systems and to submit to annual audits. Every federal department and agency has since complied with that law—except the Department of Defense. And yet, there’s even more. The January 7, 2019 issue of The Nation magazine published its detailed report about what it calls the Pentagon’s accounting scam, in which Defense has developed an elaborate system of shifting funds from one cost account to another in ways that defy recording systems and, therefore, audits. That way, when defense lobbyists repeatedly raise the threat level and request funding, Congress has no way to evaluate current spending or future need. Such funding shifts also happen to be illegal. And yet, or because of this, Congress continues to vote to raise Defense funding.
Remember, all other federal agencies now have the required auditable financial systems. The Pentagon scam is not used by HUD or Justice or Interior or Agriculture or Treasury or Education. The Department of Defense is the ultimate macho unit, the ultimate athletics department. The only question is why the authorities in charge of Defense let them get away with their financial scam, just like university administrators allow athletics to get away with their intentional mismanagement. We need to hold our macho institutions to the same standards as any others.