in Higher Ed

Going for broke: The ethics of major college athletic spending

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Image by avinashkunnath via Flickr

Here’s a story in the NY Times today about major college athletics in the New York State system. The article does raise a broader question about spending on athletic budgets when colleges and universities are tightening their belts across the board.

With student debt continually rising and declining state subsidies resulting in higher tuition costs, the amounts of money spent on sports might be a veritable drop in the bucket relative to the belt tightening being done across most college campuses that participate in big time college athletics. But is it really prudent to increase spending on things like stadiums for supposed “revenue generating” sports teams during a time of financial crisis?

This issue is on the brain of a lot of folks lately:

Here’s how William E. Kirwan, chancellor of Maryland’s university system and co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics put it:

“We see a situation where athletic expenditures are rising three or four times faster than expenditures in academic programs. That’s obviously not something that can continue. We are in an environment that certainly calls for — and I would say almost demands — change.”

He’s not the only one saying it, either. When 25 percent of college presidents say they don’t believe their funding methods for college athletics are sustainable and close to half (48 percent) say they anticipate having to cut sports, there’s a real problem. And you can be assured that more people realize there’s a problem and that the teams being cut won’t be ones you see regularly on television.

That’s where I balk at the argument that college sports = opportunities for students. With the exception very few institutions, admissions standards are lowered for athletes. So that’s not a boon to the institution. Graduation rates for student-athletes are generally abysmal in major college athletics programs. If the only thing that matters to institutions is using college sports as a marketing tool; to boost enrollment and alumni donations, that’s dandy. But the ruse that it’s the pinnacle of amateurism is folly in a world with multimillion dollar television contracts is all but over.

From the first article:

Jonathan Orszag, an economist who has evaluated for the N.C.A.A. the financial impact of moving to Division I, said that if the intangible benefits were significant enough, “you should expect some of that to be reflected in the financial data.” An increase in school spirit or heightened visibility should translate to higher application rates, for example. “And during the period that we’re studying, we didn’t observe it,” he said.

When you consider most institutions charge a fee to students for the “privilege” of these athletic teams, one has to ask where the priorities are. The arms race doesn’t end at the big schools, with their TV contracts and bowl games. The arms race trickles down to even the smallest, non-scholarship institutions where the difference between a glistening field and a dingy one can attract a student or not. Most of this building, as with the larger schools is funded by donations. But other times, it’s backed by a sort of debt that’s largely unsustainable.

Bottom line is where are we headed? Will the college athletics landscape look the same a decade from now? Everyone seems to recognize the current state of things is unsustainable, but few workable solutions seem to exist and so, the status quo reigns supreme. The only solution that most administrators seem to be considering is cutting games and sports in so-called non-revenue sports, so they can continue the pursuit of reckless abandon in the major college world.

While the tennis player in me hates that idea, perhaps that’s just what the doctor ordered. Students can make more informed choices about where to go, can transfer and continue with their studies. It’s not the end of the world for institutions to set their priorities, even if the results seem to be an indictment on the sports that don’t attract the bright lights of media.

In an ideal world, students growing up dreaming of scholarships would hone their brains the same way they practice their sports, realizing that’s their ticket to an elusive degree. If college sports is about marketing, schools need to start to employ better business savvy to their dogged pursuit of elusive athletic prominence. There’s an undeniable cache to being a Division I institution, there’s little question about this. For some, just being mentioned on Sportscenter is enough to send students and alumni into a tizzy.

Mortgaging the very academic futures of thousands of students, not to mention millions upon millions of dollars and the potential for a black eye to your institution; all for the opportunity to be pummeled routinely on the national stage, in the hopes of a singular Cinderella moment for most institutions is just folly. For every “elite” kid who seeks a chance to play at a high level, there are dozens of kids from his or her same high school who’ll never see those opportunities.

That’s maybe the world we live in, but it doesn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t make it right.