Monday, February 7, 2011

Who Needs College Athletics?

Yesterday I promised that one day I would write about one of the silliest inventions of the American higher education system which is college athletics. One day turned out to be today since the very first thing I read after I woke up was an article on college athletics:
A recent controversy at Colorado State University arose when a rejection of eight athletes on the basis of academic disqualification led to their admissions denial being overruled by President Tony Frank. Since December, 2010, their old admissions method of assigning numerical scores was replaced with a more “holistic” admissions approach, presumably to include more credit for athletic prowess. This situation has been exacerbated by another recent trend in football and men’s basketball, in which head coaches offer talented high school freshmen and sophomores athletic scholarships well in advance of their taking standardized tests or undergoing institutional evaluation of their academic potential. The once-formal recruiting weekends hosted by athletic programs for prospective student-athletes pondering schools and athletic programs are becoming mere formalities for those students who have already committed their services. To rely on college presidents, athletics directors, faculty athletics representatives or other institutional administrators to routinely and unilaterally deny predictably unsuccessful high-risk but already committed athletes against the wishes of celebrity coaches is utter fantasy. As long as coaches are paid extraordinary salaries for winning seasons, they will continue to recruit athletes primarily for athletic talent and rely on their academic support systems, learning specialists, and academic mentors to keep them eligible, retained in good academic standing, and even graduated.
Scandals surrounding college athletics arise on a regular basis. Colleges recruit coaches and pay them such high salaries that student tuition fees often have to be raised to pay for the presence of a prestigious coach on campus. Instead of bringing revenue to colleges, athletic teams are often a huge drain on university's resources:

Yet their athletic departments have one thing in common: Without millions in help from their universities, neither could pay its bills. Michigan State's $81 million budget last year included $3.7 million in university subsidies. Half of Northern Iowa's $17 million budget came from subsidies and student fees. In a climate of spiraling costs, skyrocketing coaches' salaries and softening revenue, athletic programs with much deeper pockets than Northern Iowa's are showing signs of strain, a USA TODAY analysis of college sports finance data finds.
Most departments of athletics can't pay for themselves. They also push underprepared, academically challenged students who have no chance of fulfilling the requirements for the courses they take onto the faculty and regular students. They foster an environment where learning is not central to campus life, where it is just an afterthought. Still, departments of athletics are not the ones getting closed down. Instead, we see departments that provide actual education (like the BA programs in French, Russian and Italian at SUNY Albany) getting destroyed while the useless athletics get funding and support.

There is nothing wrong with students playing sports on campus, of course. Athletics can be not only fun but also academically helpful in that they promote physical activity, which, in turn, stimulates brain activity. Nowadays, college athletics are not about fun or enjoyment of physical activity any longer. They are about hiring the most expensive coach, getting unqualified students on campus, creating artificial conditions in which they will be able to get a passing grade, teaching them that intelligence and scholarship do not matter as long as you can jump high enough, channeling valuable resources into the departments of athletics - all for what? What are the benefits that make all these sacrifices worthwhile?

I visited a college once that was struggling financially if not intellectually.

"We just built a huge stadium," one of the colleagues told me bleakly.

We went to see the stadium, and it was, indeed, gigantic.

"Where will you find people to fill it up?" I asked, knowing that the college was quite small, and the town where it was located was simply tiny.

"Oh, we'll never be able to fill it up," the colleague said. "The faculty hoped that at least a small portion of this money would go towards our library, which is dilapidated. Also, some classroom technology would be nice. But the stadium was built instead. We are told that it's good for the college spirit to have this huge, empty stadium."


Pagan Topologist said...

You are so right about this. It is even worse than the frat problem discussed so much in your last post and its comments. I think it is an outrage, but of course varsity athletes think they pay our salaries by keeping alumni interested and thus more likely to make donations to the university. I have never seen any accounting evidence to back this claim up, but it is a pervasive belief among athletic departments.

Kyle said...

Whenever I complained about my college's enormous spending on athletics to friends of mine on athletic teams, their defense was always that it brought money in. A close friend of mine took them to task and looked up the school's overall budget (available to the general campus community) and found that, just like your post would predict, our college wasted more money on athletics than it gained.

Snarky Writer said...

I had a coach come by my office 3 or 4 times last semester to talk about the progress of an athletics student in my class. He was great; he told me he'd had a long discussion with the student about how football likely wouldn't be his life and he really needed to take advantage of the opportunity and learn. If he missed an assignment or revision activity, the coach got mad and said things like "unacceptable" and promised to talk to him. If that kind of expectation and support was par for the course, I think the academic side of this wouldn't be so bad.

But the financial aspect needs to be seriously considered and reworked.

Clarissa said...

Wherever you look, information on the unsustainability of college athletics abounds:

"A study conducted by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that rising salaries for coaches, increasing costs for maintaining a competitive athletics program, and the growing cultural divide between athletics and academics are straining university budgets. The commission interviewed scores of Football Bowl Subdivision university presidents for the project, and 48 percent of them expressed concern that the current economic outlook will affect the number of varsity sports their institutions can support in the future.

"Athletics are increasingly seen as occupying a position of privilege, which the recession has brought to a harsher spotlight," says Knight Commission Cochairman R. Gerald Turner, who is also the president of Southern Methodist University. "Athletics costs are growing three times faster than elsewhere at institutions."

And this was published before the consequences of the recession were felt as deeply as they are today.

Anonymous said...

True story. My university added another side to our football stadium--and we never filled the seats before. Hardly any students attend games. Some tailgate, and leave. The year I graduated they made a "rule" that if you tailgated, you had to attend the game. They banned cars and sectioned off tailgating areas, putting alum and families next to the stadium, and students way up the Hill. Guess what? Attendance has gone way down. Should I even mention the team can't win a game?

If universities must eliminate athletic programs, they usually choose women's athletics first.

Clarissa said...

I didn't even address the whole sore issue of gendered support for college athletics. It just adds insult to injury, as they say.

Anonymous said...

Athletics lose money for the school, but it is said they make money for the town, or are one way the school funnels money to the town. Apparently they also save recruiting money for the NFL since they function as farm clubs for it; I wouldn't be surprised if university officials got kickbacks.

Izgad said...

The history department's building at Ohio State, Dulles Hall, is right up the hill from the "Horseshoe" which seat 105,000.

To be fair, our football program does make money.

Pagan Topologist said...

It occurs to me that the problem begins with interscholastic sports in high school or maybe even middle school. I do not believe that scarce educational funds should be spent on such things at all.

Marlynn said...

I respectfully disagree. I have worked in intercollegiate athletics for the past 22 years and the situation you describe is the exception not the norm. NCAA legislation requires each student-athlete to declare a major and to successfully complete a specified number of hours each semester and each year with a specified grade point average.

I previously worked in college admissions and I have seen the number of application rise at universities with successful athletics programs. Admissions fees is one way that universities raise money.

The NCAA initial eligibility requirements are so cumbersome that I write a blog for parents of high school and transfer student-athletes to assist them in becoming certified for athletics competition.

While I am not saying that each university is prefect or without problems, I don't see the positive things that NCAA academic reform has made reflected in the comments to this post.

The Eligibility Coach

Clarissa said...

Marlynn: has nobody ever told you that it's extremely rude to promote your blog and leave links to it where you haven't specifically been asked to do so? I don't trust that such a rude person with poor writing skills and horrible manners can offer good advice on anything.