College sports and the business of education – Updated

November 28, 2009

(Scroll to the end for an update on this post.)

Writing for the Times, Gilbert Gaul gives new voice to the old complaints about collegiate athletics: they spend too much and siphon money away from the “education” part of post-secondary education.

The rise of College Sports Inc. didn’t happen by accident. Administrators at many universities have allowed athletic departments to operate independently, like stand-alone entertainment divisions. They have separate budgets, negotiate their own TV deals and, in some cases, employ hundreds of coaches and staff. And as long as they continue to collect ever-larger sums from ticket sales, boosters and television, who is going to tell them to spend less?

Gaul holds that college sports use up too much money. I agree. But I can’t get behind his proposal to curb this spending:

If college presidents really wanted to halt the college sports machine, they could try two options. They could insist that athletic departments operate within their university budgets, like the English or biology departments; or they could ask Congress to rescind the tax breaks on the commercial income earned by athletic programs.

The “college sports machine” is not a monolith. This machine has two parts: revenue-generating blockbuster sports, which are run as a business (usually football and men’s basketball), and nonrevenue sports, which are run as a charity. The dominant business model in collegiate athletics has the former supporting the latter, and, ideally, kicking back a few bucks to the academic departments. When we talk about overspending in college sports, we conflate egregious spending on the moneymaking team (five-star hotel stays for football players) with “ordinary” spending on nonrevenue sports. Many if not most collegiate football programs in this country, for example, would probably be able to stand on their own. If most collegiate athletic departments need outside support, then perhaps it is spending on nonrevenue sports – and not excessive investment in revenue-generating ones – that is to blame.

I suspect that propping up nonrevenue sports is what’s hobbling collegiate athletic programs. Gaul suggests that limiting how much money athletic departments can make or spend will fix their overspending problems. But it seems that dropping the financial obligations of nonrevenue programs might be a surer way of getting college sports to pay their way. While I am speaking of both men’s and women’s nonrevenue sports, there is no getting around the issue of gender equality in sports with such a proposition, which runs directly counter to Title IX as it is currently enforced today.

Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Because athletic departments are considered to be “education programs,” they have been required to demonstrate progress towards or accomplishment of equal opportunity in sports participation. Historically, colleges have done this by establishing new nonrevenue sports for women and cutting existing nonrevenue sports for men. If, as I propose, nonrevenue sports in general are curtailed, female student-athletes will disproportionately bear the brunt of disappearing scholarships, facilities, and staff.

That said, I don’t believe that dropping nonrevenue sports from collegiate rosters will deal any serious blow to gender equality in education or in the broader society. Remember that Title IX applies to college sports on the premise that sports represent an “education activity” that somehow contributes to a student’s education in that college. Running with this assumption, we might conclude from the numbers on sports participation that the real inequality is not between male and female student-athletes, but between student-athletes and everyone else. In 2002, fewer than 2.5% of students enrolled in any college participated in school-sanctioned athletics.* For comparison, when Rutgers and Princeton each fielded 25 men for the first football game ever, the players on the field represented over 11% of the schools’ combined student body.

But I would question even that assumption – that participation in collegiate sports offers men or women a leg up in the world, especially outside the revenue-generating programs. Competing in a varsity sport is at least as draining to a college student as holding a strenuous full-time job. Meanwhile, the socioeconomic gains from such participation are small and elusive: scholarship money is scarce, the “character-building” aspect is questionable**, and the contribution to one’s education is negligible at best, negative at worst. Thus, if participation in college sports cannot be legitimately described as “educational”, then such participation – equal or otherwise – should not be governed by Title IX***. More importantly, if participating in college sports does nothing for one’s education, then colleges have no business subsidizing nonrevenue sports and the student-athletes who compete in them.****

If you’re still not convinced, I ask you to at least get your story straight. Either participation in college athletics is essential to schools’ educational missions, in which case athletic departments should become even bigger money sinks in their quest to enroll anybody and everybody in organized sports; or playing college sports is not an educational activity, in which case it should be excluded from the purview of Title IX, allowing colleges to strip funding from no-revenue-getting teams, men’s as well as women’s. To me, the second story makes much more sense. I’ll take the real economic victory of cheaper tuition and solvent athletic programs over the fleeting moral victory of an athlete of any gender being able to get a .25 scholarship to play games that few people attend, watch, or follow.

Update (02/15/10). As Times blogger Tara Parker-Pope reports today, sports participation really does seem to improve life outcomes in adulthood. While this finding contradicts my original conclusion in this post, it leads to another less-than-rosy implication: because of low overall (organized) sports participation rates in college – see above – athletic programs should become even less profitable to level the playing field between current athletes and non-athletes.


* Calculated from numbers appearing here and here.

** There is a plausible story that participating in sports develops one’s human capital in some way. However, I am not aware that this causality has ever been conclusively proven. If student-athletes are more successful than non-athletes, selection may be the important factor, not causation.

*** If athletic programs cannot be classified as educational, then they would likely lose their tax-exempt status, much as Gaul originally suggests.

**** This is not to discount non-educational positive externalities of sports participation – but even given such externalities, it would not necessarily be the responsibility of an educational institution to subsidize nonrevenue sports.

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