Over the last few weeks, I have seen the extremes in intercollegiate athletics through personal acquaintanceships and news reports. Like near everything else, generalizing about intercollegiate athletics is dangerous.
One of America’s great college presidents, John Roush of Centre College (a very fine and sometimes overlooked institution), sent me a copy of the Centre alumni magazine in which he wrote a little letter entitled “Doing It Right.” John loves sports, and was himself an Academic All-American football player. But he puts it all in proper perspective: “athletics should be about the love of the game and developing in young persons the qualities of determination, focus, and perseverance.” He later adds “I do not hold a very positive or optimistic view for our brother and sister institutions that sponsor Division I athletics, particularly when their efforts are done at the expense of academics.” Amen.
Sports at most liberal arts colleges are valued, and, indeed athletic programs are often a recruiting tool – sometimes one-fourth or even one-third of students compete in some sport. Athletic competition helps fosters many positive traits. But at liberal arts schools it is comparatively low key, and absorbs at most one or two percent of the budget of the school. That brings me to a second example of “the good” in college athletics. Last week, I was on a bus tour of the American West. A college student majoring in economics travelling with his parents impressed me. It turns out he attends Columbia University and is on the football team. School starts right after Labor Day. At most Division I schools, football players have long been practicing for the fall season. But my new friend Cameron Nizialek (a punter) starts practice on August 24 – only two weeks before school. There are no football scholarships, and as Cameron told me, he loves this competitive – but not obsessively competitive – brand of football. He is first a student, second a player. This is the way football should be handled at American universities. And Columbia’s reputation has not suffered because it cannot beat Ohio State in football – it ranks in the top 10 research universities in the latest Forbes Best College rankings, whereas Ohio States doesn’t make the top 50.
If John Roush exemplifies sanity and proper perspective, Tony Frank personifies what is bad about college sports. The president of Colorado State, Frank is successfully pushing the building of a new stadium and striving for athletic greatness, a move that rarely succeeds because of the Iron Law of Sports: every time someone wins a game, someone else loses. By spending the better part of $200 million on a new sports facility, CSU hopes to attain a heightened athletic reputation, indirectly enhancing the academic program.
In keeping with modern practice, good seating in the new stadium will go to the wealthy – those agreeing to kickback donations to the athletic program beyond ticket prices, while those buying seats but not making an additional donation will sit, at best, in seats on the 15 yard line. The notion that the stadium will be financed by private donations ignores the fact that many potential donors toacademic programs likely will be strong-armed instead into supporting football, and also ignores the implicit federal tax subsidy involved.
My sources in Fort Collins tell me that President Frank suggests athletics only costs CSU $4 million a year, a comparatively modest sum for a fairly large state university. But that figure counts the millions spent annually for athletic scholarships as revenue, not expenses. I have seen a lot of athletics-related accounting that in a corporate context probably would land CFOs in jail, but this takes the cake. Probably CSU is truly losing at least $20 million annually on sports.
The CSU scenario is being repeated at many other schools. At Ohio University, a new indoor practice facility for the football team recently opened, but the athletic director now wants a multi-million dollar “academic center” for sports built into the stadium – a facility that would allow gung-ho alums to drink alcohol while watching football games, strictly forbidden for students or non-anointed poorer fans. By rational accounting, OU loses at least $20 million annually on sports. Academic buildings are crumbling, while athletic facilities are in good shape.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled thatNorthwestern University football players do not have the right to collectively bargain. While unionization may not be a good idea in a college environment, the NU effort highlights the biggest scandal of all morally: adults exploiting children (albeit nearly adult children with remarkable physical talents). The very best collegiate football players provide millions in revenues (indirectly) to their schools, but receive compensation worth typically maybe $25,000 a year (double that at good private schools like NU). Where do the profits go? Largely into huge coaches’ salaries – the coaches (adults) are exploiting the players (children). It is financial child molestation, not as vividly reprehensible as the Jerry Sandusky form, but still pretty bad.
Is There A Way Out?
People love sports too much for reform to come easily. Half-way measures won’t work. The idea of a national commission of people of great prestige to make recommendations to change the way we handle intercollegiate athletics is a good one, and a proposal to do so apparently is before Congress. I don’t see how it could do any harm, and it might be a force for meaningful reform.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.