Why I’m Conflicted About College Athletics

As a college professor doing research in higher education finance and accountability policy, there are many times when my enjoyment of college athletics leaves me conflicted. I enjoy watching my beloved Wisconsin Badgers get the best of (most of) their Big Ten opponents on a regular basis, but I also recognize that at all but the few dozen wealthiest universities, college athletics are heavily subsidized by student fees. (Answering whether athletics programs are actually profitable is very difficult due to concerns with cost allocations, assumptions about whether students are induced to attend because of athletics, and how revenue is disbursed.)

In the past year, colleges in the “Power Five” athletic conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Pacific-12, and Southeastern Conferences) gained additional autonomy from the rest of the NCAA. They then voted to increase athletic scholarships by $2,000-$4,000 per year per athlete to cover the full cost of attendance, which is definitely a good thing for those athletes. Other Division I colleges can choose to also increase scholarships, but not without significant budgetary implications. For a college with 250 scholarship athletes (not an unrealistic number for a college with football), the cost could approach one million dollars per year. My concern is that those increases are likely to be funded out of the pockets of students and/or by cutting non-revenue sports like wrestling and track and field.

Other things that college athletic programs do are unambiguously bad for athletes. A recent example of this is with national letters of intent, which bind athletes to a college at the end of the recruiting process. Earlier this month, prized linebacker recruit Roquan Smith made news by accepting a football scholarship from the University of Georgia (switching from UCLA) without signing the letter of intent. Once a letter is signed, a student cannot transfer without losing eligibility unless the college decides to let the student out. In the meantime, coaches often leave for other jobs without facing any employment restrictions.

As a professor, I also worry about the increased number of televised weeknight games long distances from campus that cause athletes difficulties attending class. It’s great to get exposure for your college on national television (and get serious television dollars), but this places a burden on athletes and faculty who work with those students. But if I’m not teaching one evening and a good game is on, will I watch it? Quite possibly. Should I? No.

I’m curious to get readers’ thoughts about how they manage the pros and cons of big-time college athletics. Even when the game is going on, I can’t help think about the students and the dollar signs behind them.

[NOTE: A previous version of the post incorrectly noted that Mr. Smith was intending to enroll at UCLA instead of the University of Georgia. Thanks to Ed Kilgore for pointing out this error.]

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

One thought on “Why I’m Conflicted About College Athletics”

  1. I too am torn on this very issue, but over all I think college athetics fit within the scope of the American college education. Whilst debateable, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the american college experience is more than just academia; college atheltics are also encompassed within that experience.

    Athetics are good in almost all fronts. For the school, a good program increases their brand on a micro and macro level, which in turn increases applicants, more selective acceptance rate, increased tuitiion, and profitability. For the student body, it create school spirit and bonding. However, i believe that the athletes and the academics of the school does indeed suffer. In college I took a summer class in which I was the only non-athlete in the class. The course was dumbed down, and I got an A with minimal effort. However, I cannot recall one thing I learnt from that class. Many of these athletes are there because they want to play the sport and potentially go pro. Going through the college system is sometimes the only way to do so, but since only a portion get drafted, etc, many of them get stuck with a mediocre education in an underwhelming degree.

    However, it’s how the american college system has evolved to and it’s hard to really make any fundamental changes. After my undergrad, I went to England for law school; I saw an immense contrast in regards to athetics in universities. There were no huge stadiums, mascots, athetics scholarships, or big endowments. Students played intramurally, but academics were the biggest part of any student’s experience. Going to University was not an option if you wanted to go pro in a sport. There the system is set up to where if you want to go pro in a sport, you stop school at age 16 and then play your sport. Many of the professional teams have training teams and under 18 teams in which, if your good enough, you would join and play; no academics to slow you down.

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