Thursday, January 27, 2011

No Listen, No Money: Disenchanted Donor to UConn Athletics wants his $3 Million Back

Everyone knows that big money boosters influence athletic departments at big-time sports schools.

But what happens if a booster who gives a combined $7 million to a school feels as if his "suggestions" are being ignored by the school's athletic director?

Meet Robert Burton, a Greenwich CT-based printing industry executive who wants a $3 million donation returned from UConn. A leading reason for his demand is that he feels that he was denied an opportunity to comment on the school's football coaching search. He claims that he was blown off by the school's Athletic Director, Jeff Hathaway. Paul Caron of Tax Prof Blog has more and so does Dan Fitzgerald of Connecticut Sports Law.

I have 3 thoughts on this controversy:

1) To answer a question that some people are asking: unless Burton attached stipulations to his gift to the school, it's unlikely that he'll be able to get the money back. He probably already knows that. I suspect an alternate "victory" for him would be to embarrass the school and Athletic Director Hathaway, and to discourage other boosters and prospective boosters from contributing money to UConn (especially those boosters who would contribute with an expectation of gaining access in exchange).

2) Marc Isenberg had a good line about this dispute: "The unstated rules of boostering are now written."

3) While Burton is being criticized for claiming a bargained-for exchange between his donation and his ability to influence UConn athletics, and for trying to now take his gift back, I wonder if UConn and particularly Athletic Director Hathaway bear some responsibility, too.

After-all, if a school is going to accept an enormous gift from a donor whom the school presumably knows is only donating to have influence over the school's athletic program, then the school shouldn't later deny that donor a chance to share his thoughts. It wasn't like Burton was donating to help fund a new science building while having a passing interest in the sports program; he was donating to be a major player in UConn athletics. Don't take his money if that isn't going to happen.

Burton says in his letter that he wasn't looking for veto power over the hiring decision (which would have been an unreasonable request), only a chance to provide comments on the candidates. Would it have been that hard to let him comment and then give him the courtesy of listening?

Along those lines, isn't an informal duty of an athletic director to ensure that significant alums and boosters are treated well? It seems that if Hathaway had granted Burton a half hour meeting or even just a good phone conversation, it might have satisfied Burton's craving for influence, avoided this controversy, and preserved good relations with a generous donor.