Athletics and Higher Education

In light of the whole mess with the University of California system’s financial situation, this morning I was reflecting on the role of athletic problems in the fiscal situation. None of this is to identify the Athletic Department as the sole or primary cause of the problem. Indeed, you will seldom find a bigger sports fan than I, so I’m not approaching this as one who is either ignorant of or dismissive of sports in general. But, considering the fact that a recent NCAA report on the revenues & expenses of intercollegiate athletics found that “Athletics departments are not necessarily run to be “profit centers” at most institutions,” and in fact that expenses for these departments typically exceed their revenue, why on earth haven’t more schools eliminated them? Universities see so much of everything else in purely accountant terms, why hasn’t it translated into its handling of athletics? Has it, and I’ve just not heard of it? Or, is it that the revenue lost pales in comparison to the revenue lost in undergraduate teaching?

This is not a pejorative question here — I’m genuinely curious. I can’t seriously believe that the absence of a basketball program at a smallish liberal arts school, for example, would keep too many students from attending. But maybe I’m underestimating the marketing angle.


15 thoughts on “Athletics and Higher Education

  1. I think part of it is that the programs that tend to take the most heat are the successful ones that actually generate lots of money. People would feel bad eliminating women’s field hockey, but they’d love to see the big Division I football program go down. In other words, profitability tends to coincide with a lot of the academically dubious aspects of college athletics. I’m a huge sports fan as well, if that’s worth anything.

  2. The report would actually seem to indicate that the big programs are not making nearly as much money as one might think. The median revenue-to-expense accounting for football is around a $2 million net. A pretty good return, but certainly not keeping the place afloat.

  3. I couldn’t be bothered to actually read the linked study. If I’m reading you right, however, that the median program is netting $2 million, that seems like quite a lot given that no other aspect of higher learning comes close to paying for itself, or is even considered in those terms. If I were cutting programs, I’d start with the ones that were well in the negative, and not the ones that average $2 million a year. There obviously wouldn’t be any benefit to cutting a program that paid for itself.

  4. Given that, I think it is more than sensible (in fact, obvious, perhaps) to cut insignificant varsity sports programs that are major financial drains. There’s no need to get rid of them entirely, but it is hard to understand why it is worth paying someone to go to college in virtue of their athletic prowess unless their athletic prowess is actually worth money. I realize that’s cynical, but how else could one justify academic scholarships. Why should school be free because you are good at baseball, unless your skill can actually contribute financially to the school, either by insuring your program collects sufficient revenue such that it is not a drain on the institution or even contributes revenue back to the general coffers.

  5. I left this out, but the solution doesn’t require the elimination of these sports, just demoting them to club status. There are quite a few competitive men’s crew teams that receive no scholarship money (because of Title 9 issues), so it’s not as if I’m anti-collegiate sports.

  6. I agree with the club concept. One of the things many people enjoy about college is that it’s the last chance they get to play a sport seriously, and there’s no reason to deprive them of that — but it should come out of the same budget as other student activities, funded by the activities fee.

    Failing that, the football teams would probably make even more money if the major universities formed a cartel and pushed down coaching salaries system-wide. If the football coach is the highest-paid person at a school, that indicates that something has grown beyond all reasonable bounds. (And maybe they could make the players sign a contract stipulating that a percentage of any NFL paycheck would have to be donated to the school for X number of years. Would that be legally possible?)

  7. The complicating issue here is that players that could arguably succeed in the NFL without going to college are often forced to go to college (by the NFL), thereby forfeiting potentially huge amounts of money, subjecting themselves to career threatening injuries playing for free in college. So while I agree that coaches salaries are something that ought to be dealt with, professional college football players are actually being exploited by collusion between the NFL and NCAA. The NCAA gets the massive revenues from highly competitive college football programs, and the NFL gets a farm league in which the players play for free (so draft busts are more easily avoided). The secondary effect is that this system, i.e. forcing football players to go to college if they want to succeed in football, is what actually causes most of the friction between football programs and academics, and it is the NCAA college sports bureaucracy and NFL team owners that benefit.

  8. I know that’s the conventional wisdom, and it may be true. However, even if most people might get killed were they drop straight in, they are still assets, as they will eventually develop into skilled NFL players (some of them at least). They are prevented, by collusion, from demanding a fair price for the potential injury attendant to playing in circumstances that benefit both the NFL (in that they weed out players) and the NCAA (in that an entire sports world is created that wouldn’t otherwise exist, namely professional quality competition where the athlete pay for free). In other words, while we hear a lot about the guys that make it out of college with a big pay day, what about the guy that sustains a career-ending or at least career-compromising injury or is ostracized and kicked out due to poor athletic performance. Basically, I think the connection between high end “college” football and academics is complete nonsense at this point, and we ought to be paying those players.

  9. You’ll get no argument from me there. This is apropos of nothing, but this is also the reason I think those who say that the NFL needs a rookie salary cap kind of silly — since those who make it to the NFL have effectively been working wage-free for years already.

  10. Exactly… and when you consider what is going to happen to all of those left tackles in 20 years (in light of emerging research on repetitive head trauma) it’s unclear if they are even being paid enough.

  11. There is one contingent, although compelling reason, why the NFL has an interesting in its players being able to navigate college successfully (even if they don’t obtain a degree): it is considered a reasonable indicator for your ability to avoid destroying your life (and their investment) once you start making millions a year. Of course, there are problems with this.

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