TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Are college sports really a cash cow? More like a cash tapeworm.

College athletics are perceived as a cash cow, a profit center for Division I schools that justifies the substantial image risk that many schools incur by enrolling “students” of dubious academic merit, and by associating themselves with the sports agents and high-rolling boosters who are drawn to college athletes like flies.

The numbers, however, often tell a different story. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that most college athletic programs in Ohio — with one notable exception: Ohio State — are not financially self-sustaining from ticket sales, merchandise royalties and other self-generated revenues. Rather, they must draw on some combination of student fees and state appropriations — as much as $18.7 million a year at one school (Ohio University), according to figures culled by the Plain Dealer from reports the schools submitted to the NCAA.

This is a story that could be replicated across just about any state, and it’s one that can easily be done with the aid of state and federal transparency laws.

At a public university, correspondence submitted to the NCAA — including periodic financial reports about the revenues and expenses of athletic programs — must be made public on request under state open-records laws. In addition, a federal disclosure law, the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, also entitles the public to peek inside the financial workings of college athletics. It is even easier to use than an open-records request — and, unlike an open-records request, it will apply equally to any private institution that accepts government funding.

Under the Act, colleges must submit annual reports to the U.S. Department of Education breaking down what they spend on intercollegiate athletics, by sport, as well as how many students are participating in each sport (by gender) and how much coaches are paid. Congress passed the Act in 1994 to address a perceived imbalance in financial support for women’s athletic programs, and the Act is intended to enable the DOE and the public to detect gender-based inequities.

But data generated by the EADA can also provide a window into other news stories, including a comparison between how much the “haves” and “have nots” of college athletics spend on their sports programs. For instance, the University of Texas-Austin reported spending $25.1 million on its football program during 2009, while the University of Houston spent $8.2 million during the same period. (Given that, as of Oct. 25, Houston is seven spots higher than Texas in the latest BCS rankings, the Cougars’ athletic department must have some deft coupon-clippers.)

The Department of Education has helpfully built an analytical tool, accessible here, that enables requesters to view the data that colleges submit annually to the DOE. The tab labeled “Revenues and Expenses” is worthy of special attention.

Two substantial caveats: Schools’ financial reports are a starting place for reporters and not an ending place. Many schools report that their revenues and expenditures for athletic expenses match up exactly to the penny. Anyone who has ever managed a budget knows that this is implausible.

And that brings up the second caveat: The “revenue” figures may also include money allocated from the college itself to cover any shortfall in earnings versus expenses. A balance sheet that balances to the penny is a potential tip-off that the college is putting general education dollars — money from students’ tuition and fees, from donors, and from state taxpayers — into propping up the athletic department’s finances. This isn’t necessarily wrong or shady — the history department and the English lit department don’t turn a profit, either. But it’s worth exploring as an exercise in deflating the myth that athletic department revenue is subsidizing scholarships for English majors. It’s just as likely that English majors’ tuition is helping subsidize scholarships for jocks.