This weekend, the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide football team steamrolled No. 13 Mississippi State in front of 101,821 fans for its eighth win in eight tries this season. This was a relatively normal fall Saturday in Tuscaloosa: Football is a religion at Alabama, as it has become at many universities. Last year, a rogue Alabama fan poisoned two oak trees near the Auburn campus that Tigers fans paper after victories. And this was in the national news. It’s about time this madness stopped.
The size of big-time college sports is growing out of control. NCAA football and men’s basketball, in particular, have ballooned into spectacles as televised and discussed as the NFL and the NBA.
Many argue that football and basketball make money for universities. Thus, really, they are performing a service to improve their universities. Both of these arguments are wrong.
I’ll address big-time college sports’ profitability first.
While some schools do make money from their athletic programs, that number is much smaller than one would think. In 2009, only 14 of the 120 athletic programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly Division I-A, turned a profit for their schools. In 2010, that number was up to 22. The median revenue of the 22 profitable schools was over $7.3 million. Yet this increase masks a disturbing fact: the median loss of the other 98 schools was over $11.5 million. As the NCAA noted in its 2011 Revenues and Expenses report, “the gap between the financially successful programs and others continues to broaden.” The universities themselves must subsidize those programs that lose money. The relatively small amount of these subsidies, however, is not the primary problem. The major issue is that schools aspire to be like one of the 22 “moneymakers” of 2010.
Today, having a good sports program has become beneficial in more than pure economic terms: It boosts a school’s reputation as well. For example, two economists from the University of Chicago and Brigham Young University showed that the year after winning a national championship in football, a school sees a 10 percent increase in applications. Of course, winning the national championship in football has nothing to do with how good a school is academically. But applicants are not the only ones confused. About five-sixths of FBS schools are public institutions, which means they rely on state governments to provide around one-quarter of their revenue, according to Duke economist Charles Clotfelter. Inexplicably, state governments give more money to schools with big-time, successful sports teams. The current system is set up to encourage schools to strive for athletic excellence, at the expense of other pursuits.
This leads me to my second point: Is this what we want for our universities? Do we want to leave the market to dictate what universities should do? Absolutely not. Universities are for educating young people and for cultivating skills that will aid their students through the rest of their lives, both personally and professionally.
The football and basketball teams at big-time sports universities are businesses. Just listen to how coaches refer to their teams as “programs.” We should believe them: In many cases, the teams have little to nothing to do with the universities that they nominally represent. Many coaches of big-time college teams have no interest in their players attaining a degree, which should be a goal of every student enrolled at a university. John Calipari, head coach of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, promises recruits that if they come to Kentucky and do well enough, they will be in the NBA the following year. Year after year, Calipari’s teams top the rankings, often making the final four or winning a national championship. Then his slew of talented freshmen leave for the NBA, and Calipari recruits a new batch. Sadly, it seems Calipari’s measure of success is similar to Kentucky’s: The state-funded university will pay him at least $5.2 million per year until 2020.
By now it is well known that being on a big-time football or basketball team is a full-time job that leaves little to no time for studying. In many cases, courses are pre-picked for the players. The coaches and professors often have an “understanding” about the expectations for athletes in those classes. In 2003, the University of Georgia men’s basketball team must have been very excited to find a final exam including multiple-choice questions such as: “How many halves are in a college basketball game?” and “How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?” I forgot to mention that the teacher of this class was not only the head coach’s son, but also an assistant coach on the team.
Of course, there is a place for college sports. It seems to me that Yale, and other schools with similarly serious-but-moderate sporting scenes, has just about got it right. For example, it is terrific that much of our student body will travel to Cambridge in three weeks for The Game. It is also good that when our football team loses the campus doesn’t go into a communal depression. I know that on this same page last year, Chelsea Janes argued that Yale was falling behind in athletics and that President Levin was the major culprit, lowering recruiting admissions from 17 percent to 13 percent. Here’s what I think: The difference neither significantly hurts teams, nor does it marginalize athletes on campus. Recruited walk-ons now fill the extra 4 percent. At the same time, it does a world of good in establishing the purpose of our university. It is not elitist to care less about athletic success than big-time sports schools or even than Harvard, which has lowered its admissions standards for athletes and is winning more Ivy League titles as a result.
Although we could certainly support our teams more, I like how we have it here. There are people who couldn’t care less about Yale sports and people who care quite a lot. When we go to sporting events, we see our friends on the court or on the field. This is how college sports should be. At some other schools, young men our age are on NBC and CBS playing football and basketball in front of massive crowds and television audiences. It is hard not to see that these are semi-professionals in college uniforms. The obsession with big-time college sports is not good for the universities involved. In fact, it is diluting their integrity.