The term “student-athlete” is meant to conjure up images of college football players hitting the books after practice. It is not meant to make you think about private dining halls, miniature golf courses and bowling alleys.
But these types of perks are very much part of the life of today’s football-playing student-athletes. Unable to pay them salaries, universities have hit upon lavish buildings, with both athletic and recreational amenities, as a way to attract the most promising recruits out of high school.
The current poster child for wretched excess could well be Clemson, the public university in South Carolina that has made it into this year’s four-team playoff for the national title, which begins on New Year’s Eve. Clemson is building a $55 million facility that will include multiple recreational lounges, a miniature golf course, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a barber shop and a volleyball court — all reserved for use by athletes.
The other three teams in the playoffs — Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State — are not far behind in this ongoing arms race. Nor are numerous other institutions hoping to make it to the pinnacle of big-time college football. According to The Washington Post, 48 institutions spent a combined $772 million on facilities in 2014, a near doubling of a decade earlier.
Universities have long built lavish training facilities for their football players, and the student-athlete concept has become increasingly quaint in the era of mega-TV contracts. Even so, the idea of adding private-dining and leisure-time amenities took off in 2013, when the University of Oregon opened what might best be called a luxury day spa for football players. Funded by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the new facility is one reason that Oregon has earned the nickname “Nike U.”
For the general public, this is a discouraging trend. Current and former students are $1.2 trillion in debt, while the cost of a college education continues to rise. In some cases, these new facilities pull money directly away from other activities. That’s because they are funded wholly or in part by mandatory student fees.
Even in cases where wealthy donors foot the bill, there is a cost to the university’s broader educational mission: Money given to lavish sports facilities is money that can’t be given to scholarship funds, professorships or academic facilities.
Beyond the sheer money issue, the competition for the most lavish facilities poses another problem. It undermines the universities’ mission of providing at least a semblance of an education to their football players, the vast majority of whom will never make it to the NFL.
These facilities segregate athletes from the broader student body and from experiences that could help them later in life. Even worse, their leisure-time amenities lure them away from their studies in the little time they have beyond their athletic responsibilities.
From a university’s point of view, building an expensive facility is an admission that its desire to win games trumps its stated goal of providing the tools football players will need once their playing days are over. Unless, of course, the players plan to make a living on the mini-golf or pro-bowling circuits.
Clemson: We’re proud of success
At Clemson, our athletic programs are nationally recognized for our philosophy of full compliance, academic achievement, competitive excellence, sportsmanship, student-athlete development and experience.
Our new football operations facility reflects that philosophy — and we should not apologize for that. It is easy to create headlines over the new football facility, but it is a bit more difficult to point out the facts that are:
- Absolutely no university, student or state funds are allotted to the construction of the facility, nor are they used for any aspect of the operation of our athletic department. Rather, the generosity of our supporters has made this facility possible. Redirecting donor contributions — whether they are targeted for engineering, research or athletics — is detrimental to the overall continued success of the university. In fact, the success of our athletic program has led to significant contributions for numerous academic and research programs at Clemson.
- This new operations facility allows us to repurpose the football space, creating a 38,000 square-foot academic success center benefiting every student-athlete across each of our 19 sports. Our emphasis on academic success has resulted in our overall department’s Graduation Success Rate of 91 percent, which ranks fifth nationally among public institutions. Additionally, the football program is one of only five top-division programs ranked in the top 10 percent in each of the last five years in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate.
- While we build outstanding facilities to assist in our student-athletes’ development, we also recognize that most will not make a living from pro sports. That’s why we provide programs in leadership training, social media awareness and personal finance. We also provide the Tiger Trust, which allows any student-athlete who leaves campus in good academic standing to return on athletic aid to complete his or her degree.
Our success at Clemson is not defined solely by our No. 1 ranking in football or our recent berth in the men’s soccer championship game, but by the many success stories of our student-athletes earning degrees and impacting their communities and the world.
Dan Radakovich is director of athletics at Clemson University.