We have completed yet another holiday season, by which I mean a season of college football bowl games. The amount of attention and money heaped upon college athletics makes one wonder whether our priorities are skewed.
Let me preface this discussion by noting that I, like many, love sports on all levels. And as a former NCAA faculty athletic representative, I have a strong belief in the value of college athletics. But we can exaggerate good things and lose perspective.
In his new book “The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America,” author Gregg Easterbrook notes that except for a very small handful of very elite institutions, most college athletic programs take money out of the general fund of the university to pay for sports. This is especially true of student activity fees which are used to fund athletic facilities that the average student is not allowed to use.
Ohio University economist Richard Vedder notes a Knight Foundation study of the 100 largest college athletic programs found that while those schools increased academic spending per student by 8 percent from 2005 to 2011, they increased athletic spending per athlete by 38 percent. The mean academic spending per student was about $13,000, while spending per athlete was about $96,000.
So while we complain mightily about the cost of college education, colleges are charging students to pay for athletics that are only tangentially related to actual education. As Easterbrook puts it, college athletics often acts as a not-for-profit business that takes money from tax payers and students to pay for its own operation, often paying employees quite well.
College football players graduate at a lower rate than do the general student population. This is despite that fact that most football players, especially at Division I, are on scholarship. Thus they don’t have the most typical reason why students don’t graduate college, namely because they can’t afford it. Also, most athletic programs devote significant resources to tutoring.
As Easterbrook notes, the NCAA pays far more attention to nitpicking rules about small amounts of money being funneled to poor college athletes while ignoring the fact that the African-American graduation rate at most college football and basketball programs is an embarrassment.
The reason for all the spending is clear. People take great pride in the success of the local sports team or the alma mater. Also, athletic success creates attention for the university, often leading to more applications and thus more students. But as both Easterbrook and Vedder note, ultimately athletics typically rate a poor return on investment.
Physical excellence is part of a sound education. The Greeks called this “gymnastics” and thought it was central to education. And we should note that the integrity of college athletics increases the lower the division of competition. But we should beware substituting a love of athletics for a commitment to what college is about, namely academic excellence. In a time when college is becoming increasingly unaffordable and many see a “higher education bubble” about to burst, we should be cautious about charging taxpayers and students more for that which contributes little to the academic mission of the university.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.