One of my favorite sports stories in recent memory came on April 5, 2010, when No. 5 seed Butler played mighty Duke in one of the best-ever March Madness finales. Sure, I remember Gordon Hayward’s three-quarter court heave that barely missed at the buzzer. Had it gone in, it would have been the greatest shot in the history of college basketball: David would have taken down Goliath. But that wasn’t the best story of the day. Did you know that the Butler players had gone to class earlier that morning?
One of my least favorite has to be the recent news that the University of Maryland and Rutgers University are joining the Big 10 Conference. The previous easternmost university in the conference was Penn State. There’s no secret as to why Maryland and Rutgers wanted to join: This is all about money. Even though Maryland must pay $50 million as an exit fee to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference, it will benefit from greater television exposure in the Big 10, leading to more revenue. Small matter that its student-athletes will have to travel ridiculous distances for conference games.
On Oct. 31, I wrote a column that derided big-time college sports and largely chastised universities that have let their football and basketball programs balloon out of the stratosphere. I wish to extend those ideas here.
First, some say that it is elitist and without basis to diminish athletics at universities. After all, athletics are an extracurricular activity equally important as others, such as the student orchestra and a cappella groups. Who am I to say what activity is more important? In fact, at many universities, football and basketball teams provide the fulcrum of school spirit.
I am in no position to judge what extracurricular activities are more worthwhile than others. I am in a position to point out that not only are athletics not in danger of being marginalized, but they are, in fact, marginalizing many other equally deserving extracurricular activities, not to mention curricular ones.
In 2010, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent commission whose reports are well-respected within college sports, released an illuminating report. The commission reported that in the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly Division I-A, median athletics spending per student-athlete at 97 of the subdivision’s 103 public institutions was north of $90,000. By contrast, median academic spending per student was less than $13,500. And spending per athlete was rising over twice as fast as academic spending per student over the past five years. The cold, hard facts are really no better in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), formerly Division I-AA, in which Yale and other similarly oriented universities compete. Sixty-two of the 75 public institutions in the FCS spent a median of $35,220 on athletics per student-athlete, while they coughed up just $11,776 as the median academic spending per student. Data for private institutions, such as Yale, are more difficult to come by and are not included in the Knight Commission’s report.
But it doesn’t much matter. Even at Yale, there is cause to complain about the resources being diverted towards some athletics. The men’s basketball team here has 16 players listed on its roster. Those 16 players have four coaches. The football team has over 10 coaches, including separate coaches for defensive line, defensive backs and outside linebackers. Meanwhile, the Yale Symphony Orchestra has 91 full-time players. The orchestra has one music director, Toshiyuki Shimada. Shimada is simultaneously the music director of two other orchestras in Connecticut and New York. Let’s also remember that the YSO is plainly one of the best undergraduate orchestras in the United States. Our basketball and football teams generally are not.
This misallocation of resources is preventing many institutions, possibly including our own, from growing. The amount that universities spend on athletics versus the amount they spend on academic and other pursuits already compromises their roles as educational institutions. If spending on athletics continues to outpace spending on academics, those institutions will become more minor league sports factories than academic institutions. It’s disgraceful that universities’ overfunding of sports teams comes at a time when a college education is becoming less and less affordable.
Secondly, many say that having good sports programs helps a university accumulate money from donors. And so, even in concrete terms, bigger sports programs are beneficial for universities. This claim is unfounded. In fact, recent research supports the opposite — namely, that athletic donations crowd out academic giving. A study this past summer at the University of Arkansas, which examined 29 FBS schools’ records from 2000–’09 and has received considerable attention, showed that increased athletic success in football and basketball leads to greater athletic donations, but also to fewer academic ones. Of course, there were other economic factors at play from 2000–’09 that might have influenced the results. But the bottom line is clear: Athletic and academic donations are separate entities, and they do not rise and fall concurrently. Thus, having a good football and basketball team has very little to do with enhancing a university’s primary academic goals.
Third, there’s the argument that essentially says, “This is the way things are, we like it, everyone likes it, and college sports are an indispensable part of our culture, so let it be.” At first, this is a difficult argument to rebuke, because even my own mother loves March Madness. And when you’re watching college sports on television in all its grandeur, the student-athletes don’t seem pawns in a malignant chess game; they look happy as can be. But upon consideration, this type of reasoning is deeply flawed, similar to that employed in all kinds of defective systems. It’s simply not true that everyone likes the current system or that things must continue as they are. There will always be a place for college sports, and sports-loving alumni will always be able to support their universities on the court and the field. But the current state of college sports is bad for our universities and for our country.
If you agree that the United States is now lagging behind in education then this system must change. It is hypocritical to support our government’s giving more money to universities if that money is flowing more into sports programs than into educating young men and women. The relentless drive for success in football and basketball, epitomized by the realignment of the Big 10 just last week, is overshadowing the most important parts of our universities, which are falling further and further behind. It’s no secret why, but many remain blissfully oblivious to our universities’ absurd situation, because … you’ll have to excuse me. My friends and I are going to go watch No. 2 Duke and No. 4 Ohio State play each other in basketball tonight. Should be a great game.