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Time for UConn athletics to accept responsibility for its financial mess

The University of Connecticut released an official statement last week after Kevin Ollie's $11 million victory, using the word "nonsensical" to besmirch the ruling of Mark Irvings, an arbitrator who has done noteworthy work for Major League Baseball, Yale University, Electric Boat and Frito-Lay in his near 50-year career.

The "nonsensical" part here is that it's taken this long to ask the following question: At what point will UConn athletics accept responsibility for the directionless leadership that has resulted in a fiscal quagmire — exacerbated by the $11,157,032.95 Ollie must receive within 10 business days?

There are financial mismanagement issues in the athletic department for which there must be culpability, highlighted by Ollie's settlement, the restoration of women's rowing after UConn was found in violation of Title IX and a burgeoning budget deficit in excess of $40 million.

Straight up: UConn is awash in a lack of institutional strategy borne of dizzying levels of incompetence and the abject failure of the Board of Trustees to execute its fiduciary responsibilities.

And so when do UConn officials actually explain themselves? Or is the media in this state so beholden to UConn for content now that asking such questions might lead to less access, less information and not worth the risk/reward?

Here's what I know: Athletic director David Benedict is the one constant among the foibles. He's waist deep in the Ollie mess, the Title IX failures and the budgetary debacle.

It's time that he or somebody above him gave some answers.

My suspicion is that Benedict has kept his job because senior administrators tend to survive in places with significant turnover, such as UConn and its recent conga line of interim presidents. It's always the next president's decision.

Benedict is something of a social media darling among UConn loyalists, the patron saint of leading the Huskies back to the Big East — a decision, apparently, viewed as a deodorant in Huskyville. The Big East solves all.

But we've learned by now that social media has made it easier to wage war on the truth, providing a forum for the deluded to skew the facts — in this case how Benedict manages to keep his job after every decision of his appears to cost the university more money.

Or is Benedict simply a victim of terrible legal advice? We all have our opinions about Ollie's case. Except that few of us have the legal background to truly understand the terrain. Irvings made a reasonable enough argument to suggest that dismissing Ollie and not paying him wasn't actually such safe soil after all. Did Benedict and former president Susan Herbst get bad legal advice — or sound legal advice and chose to ignore it?

And then: Who advised him to cut women's rowing? It became a Title IX cause celebre, resulting in UConn suddenly enhancing the program with more funding tied to a new boathouse, more coaches and other upgrades.

Now stories sprout about the athletic department's budget deficit that has swelled to $47.2 million for the 2021 fiscal year. Surely, COVID is a factor for the increase. But there's still the matter of a $40 million baseline.

UConn's response came through a statement — again, another impersonal, blanket missive — saying that athletics "continues to work toward less reliance on institutional support and is on track to achieve a level more in line with its peers by the end of the next fiscal year."

Really?

How are they specifically going to reduce the deficit in the current fiscal year? What are they going to do differently that will result in significant needle movement? All we are seeing are nominal cuts (men's tennis, men's swimming and diving and men's cross country) that can't possibly add to tens of millions.

Moreover, where is the $11 million owed Ollie coming from? Where are the increased funds given to women's rowing coming from? And based on UConn's recent fiscal history under this leadership, who is gullible enough to believe anything they say?

Nobody is suggesting that keeping a college athletic department fiscally afloat is easy. Other schools are having issues as well. But Joe and Jane Average Taxpayer ought to be outraged at having to float this kind of money.

My guess is that UConn will summon its mouthpieces to control the message. COVID will be the cosmic crutch used to sufficiently explain the failings, shortcomings and deficiencies to suit its flag-wavers. But there's enough evidence of ineptitude here for the rest of us to start asking questions. And I sure am.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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