NC State’s residence hall plan for athletes follows a trend

Last month, the UNC Board of Governors approved construction of a $15 million residence hall at N.C. State meant to cater to men’s and women’s basketball players. As is often true in college sports, it’s difficult to know whether the appropriate response to this development is to applaud, laugh or shake your head in dismay. In this case, maybe all of the above.

Here’s the deal: Under NCAA rules no more than 49 percent of tenants in the four-story, 62-bed building down the hill from Reynolds Coliseum can be student-athletes. Yet the on-campus apartments will be tailored to best serve the needs of 30 players, doubling as comfortable and convenient living quarters and a nifty recruiting tool.

Lately, similar 51-49 living formulations catering to athletes sprang up from Oklahoma to Kentucky, Kansas to Auburn. On-site dining, indoor basketball courts, movie theaters, large in-room televisions, and 24-hour attendants posted at the door are among the amenities offered. N.C. State officials, with no fixed construction schedule, have visited Kentucky and are poised to visit Kansas before fleshing out the details of their new dorm.

“Some of the top programs have these sorts of facilities, and we consider ourselves one of the top programs,” Bobby Purcell, executive director of N.C. State’s Wolfpack Club, says of the residence hall. “The idea originated from, what can we do to help our basketball programs get better?”

The booster organization has pledged to pay for the new dorm; the working title “Case Commons” will yield to the wishes of a donor eager to purchase the naming rights.

This fresh twist on athletic dorms is just the latest sign that, in an era when big-time college programs are awash in TV revenue, the so-called athletic arms race is as vibrant as ever.

Keeping up with rivals

In some sports the flow of money is more waterfall than stream. Jerry Stackhouse, the UNC and longtime NBA basketball player from Kinston, marveled after going pro in 1995 that the more money he had, the more things people wanted to give him. So it seems with contributions to support athletics, at all-time highs from Clemson to Wake Forest. Duke already exceeded a $250 million fundraising goal with two years remaining in the campaign.

The relentless thirst to keep up with rivals, long decried as symbolic of excess and misplaced priorities, remains unquenched and increasingly unremarked. Wake broke ground in September 2014 on a $21 million indoor football practice facility set to debut early next year. N.C. State opened a similar $14 million building in June. Such structures are now ubiquitous nationwide, also popping up like mushrooms in damp woods over the past few years at ACC schools Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Duke is pouring tens of millions of dollars into a panoply of new athletic facilities and revamps of golden oldies, foremost among them Wallace Wade Stadium. The private school’s investment is a drop in the bucket compared with the $456 million spent by Texas A&M simply on Kyle Field, which debuted its new 102,000-seat football configuration on Sept. 12.

Just the price of doing business in a highly competitive marketplace.

What’s more, the new realities of college sports require a greater commitment to providing benefits to athletes beyond scholarships, room and board, and academic support. This is only fair. From guaranteeing four-year scholarships to providing full cost of attendance, NCAA members are learning, however grudgingly, to share the wealth with those who generate the revenue. All while clinging to the tenuous assertion this is amateur athletics.

Under the circumstances, offering a nicer place to live seems less a matter of cultivating exceptional treatment than conceding a shift in sensibilities.

“They can’t pay the players anything, so all you can do is to say, we’ve got great facilities and you’ve got a shot at the pros,” observes Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor of public policy, economics and law and author of the 2011 book, “Big-Time Sports in American Universities.”

Competitive edge

A 2013 survey of 179 football players found that a school’s academic standing was the top factor in choosing where to play. Of the other 14 influences listed, a team’s playing facilities ranked fourth in importance, campus living arrangements sixth and team facilities eighth.

“You’ve got a crazy system where you’re going to have success if you have good players,” Clotfelter continues. “You cannot pay them anything. You’re very restricted on what you can do, so it’s sort of like a balloon going out where it’s not being held so it pops out in the facility thing. It’s just one of the crazy results of the system we have.”

Not surprisingly, Kentucky basketball led the recent march to more luxurious accommodations as a path to gaining a competitive edge.

Housing as recruiting tool was popularized in 1978 by UK’s then-swank Wildcat Lodge. By 1996 the NCAA had phased in a ban on dormitories exclusively occupied by players. The edict reflected a determination to minimize athletic privilege, better integrate players into the student body, and avoid situations like the University of Oklahoma football dorm allegedly rife with cocaine use and residents discharging firearms during the 1980s.

Athlete-centric living waned until Kentucky opened the $8 million Wildcat Coal Lodge in 2012, with just under half of the 32 beds going to male basketball players. The lodge’s new iteration was funded with naming fees that went to a coalition of donors led by the president of Alliance Coal. Students protested and esteemed Kentucky writer Wendell Berry withdrew many of his personal papers from the UK archives.

Oh, well. More important, Wildcat coach John Calipari got to showcase the new digs in a YouTube video that had rivals sputtering in envy and media types proclaiming another coup for the master recruiter and self-promoter. That inevitably stoked appetites elsewhere. Next month the University of Kansas opens Marie S. McCarthy Hall, a privately funded, $11.6 million dorm housing 38 students, basketball players prominent among them, near Allen Fieldhouse.

Other schools

A member of UNC’s Board of Governors understandably balked at the projected cost of $242,000 per bed at N.C. State’s new residence hall, more than triple the going rate to build a typical dorm room. Clearly he’s unfamiliar with stratospheric athletic spending. Three years ago, UK’s construction price per bed in the Wildcat Coal Lodge was $250,000. The comparable unit cost at Kansas is $305,000, with an indoor basketball court and room for future expansion part of the calculation.

Auburn opened the $51 million South Donahue Residence Hall in 2013 to accommodate 418 undergrads, including most of the football team, in suites with washers and dryers, kitchenettes and 42-inch TVs. The same year Oklahoma christened $75 million Headington Hall, complete with 80-seat movie theater. About 180 of the 380 beds are reserved for athletes, predominantly football players. Both dorms are near football facilities.

Athletic director Debbie Yow says the original impetus for an N.C. State living space was a discussion with coach Mark Gottfried about limiting the unwelcome influence of player agents. “’What do we do? What have we not done? What can we do to best ensure, at least for our part, that we protect our student-athletes from agents in men’s basketball?’” they wondered.

The forthcoming residence hall, unusual for incorporating female players, is expected to include screening of non-athletes to avoid renters with links to gambling. Video surveillance and a person at the front entrance around the clock promise security. Adjacency to Case Athletic Center offers easy access to academic support and dining.

All in all, a reasonable if pricey answer to providing adequate privacy, protection and perks.