Over the weekend an interesting article ran in the New York Times (How Big Time Sports Ate College Life), highlighting the growing concerns that college sports, especially football and to a lesser degree basketball, are quickly becoming the focal point of many of America’s finest institutions. The article asserts that increasingly more students are choosing their college primarily based on the success of the football program, often overlooking the supposed real attraction of why people should go to college in the first place – for the the academics. The colleges, on the other hand, seem happy to acquiesce by spending millions of dollars on athletics, as well as building bigger and fancier sport venues. The question, however, is the same one that seems to come up time and time again — that is, what are American colleges these days, institutions of higher learning or sports entertainment (with some academics on the side)? Sport and society within the realm of college in America has never been so interesting to dissect.
Reasons to Continue Spending Big $$$ on College Sports
The biggest arguments for the rapid and continued growth of college sports include:
A) they generate excitement, and therefore attract more students, and
B) they generate revenue.
There is no disputing that college athletics can do both of these things, but these arguments become more interesting the deeper you delve into them…
With respect to generating excitement, it seems as though college sports have always done this, even before all the big money. In fact, at Duke, the Cameron Indoor Stadium holds less than 10,000 fans, yet is still one of the most exciting places in America to catch a game. Interestingly, Duke has decided to not expand their venue over the years and instead keep it small by today’s standards, essentially losing millions of dollars each year as a result. This is very different than most colleges today who routinely add as many seats as possible in order to generate every last potential dollar.
The truth is that even when college sports were not so glitzy and glamorous, students still went nuts and supported their respective teams fiercely — and students in the past still wanted to go to big-name universities even before they dumped tens of millions more dollars into their programs.
The Costs of “Selling Out”
When it comes to generating more revenue by bulking up an athletic department, it’s hard to argue that bigger college sport investments usually equal bigger college sport revenues. The problem, however, are the costs associated with what some would call “selling out” in order to make every last buck. What are the consequences with students, professors, and alumni who feel the academic pursuit and standards have been terribly compromised just in order to have a better football team? And how must professors feel when college presidents justify huge coaching salaries by gushing over the money their football coaches bring in, when in fact professors (who make pennies on the dollar in salary compared to coaches) often bring in big bucks of their own to the university through research grants?
Why Not Gambling Casinos, too?
Continuing on with the argument about the good in endlessly dumping money into college athletics is the question of the ‘ole “slippery slope.” As it becomes more and more clear that colleges seem to be willing to do almost anything to have a good football team, what’s next? Would placing gambling casinos next to the football stadium be such a bad idea? Wouldn’t they guarantee revenue if a college decided to put a few around campus? Gambling is legal in most states today, it generates excitement, and offers odds that only the house can win!
Will We Ever Go Back?
It will be interesting to see if any college presidents in the future decide to put a halt on the growth of college athletics while re-emphasizing that colleges are about academics first and foremost. Critics have argued that it will be impossible to “put the genie back in the bottle,” and they may be right. Still, many people would like to see college priorities go back toward emphasizing and supporting academic pursuits before athletic endeavors, even if the odds of this happening appear bleak.
My guess is that the current model of prioritizing athletics before academics in terms of spending will not change until it absolutely has to, and it’s hard to say when that will happen. In all likelihood, something will eventually happen — some watershed moment where reasonable minds will prevail and begin to discuss going back to a pecking order that more reflects what the word “university” was meant to be. I say this as I suspect there will eventually be a backlash by university professors, administrators, and students at some point, perhaps through social media efforts to unite or some other concerted way to illustrate their unhappiness with their perceived devaluing of academics. Will the money in athletics become the primary focus of universities in the future, or will see a shift back to prioritizing academics first?