The original intent of intercollegiate athletics has been perverted–emphasis on amateurism replaced by widescale commercialization and quasi-professionalism.
Fit to higher ed? Unimportant. Give fans what they want. They’ll pay for it, too. CBS will pay. ESPN will pay. Nike will pay. It’s pro-style entertainment, after all. But at what cost?
Intercollegiate athletics lives in an upside-down world. As we spend more and more money on football and men’s basketball, we eliminate non-revenue-generating sports because … well … they don’t generate much money. By one count, nearly 80 schools across the country have eliminated roughly 300 sports programs over the past year.
Tennis, golf, and cross-country are among the hardest-hit sports today. Institutionally, Stanford made the deepest cuts (N=11 sports), including men’s gymnastics and women’s field hockey. Following Iowa’s lead, Michigan State eliminated swimming and diving (men’s and women’s teams), ending the men’s program that began in 1922. Iowa later reinstated the women’s swimming and diving team, but not three men’s teams—swimming and diving, gymnastics, and tennis.
We had not seen such widespread cuts in college sports programs since the early 1950s through the mid-1970s when hundreds of small colleges dropped football because of costs. Costs are the primary reason in 2020-21, too, with budgets constrained by the impact of COVID-19.
But, unlike what happened years ago with football, it would be a mistake to view the elimination of so-called ‘secondary sports’ as simply the unfortunate (and, perhaps, necessary) victim of a budget crunch.
Rather, it’s the pernicious impact of the prevailing business model in college sports today–a model that privileges the commercial success of sports over the role and function of amateur intercollegiate athletics in the context of higher education’s mission. Athletic directors–with administrative and board support–are making ‘business decisions’ to eliminate ‘secondary sports’ in a move that sociologists call goal displacement.
How so? When intercollegiate athletics entered the higher education scene, the purpose was to promote whole-student development—mind and body, together—and “to help the individual pursue excellence,” as Robert Ford Greene puts it. The virtues of intercollegiate athletics are widely acknowledged: “the bonding, the camaraderie, the tests of courage and will … inspiring work ethic, goal orientation…” All of that can and does apply in a variety of college sports. But what crept onto the scene early and persistently–in some college sports and not others–is the specter of big-time money. And money has had a corrupting impact on intercollegiate athletics.
Decades ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (college sports oversight organization) recognized how it, athletic conferences, and schools could benefit from the college sports business–and the Association jumped in with both feet.
But the mastermind, Walter Byers, who served as Executive Director from 1951-1988 and is the person who authorized the term ‘student-athlete,’ went to his grave ruing the enterprise he had built. The title of his 1997 autobiography says why: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.
He should have known better. The history of football and men’s basketball signaled risks. For example, in 1905, then-President Theodore Roosevelt assembled university presidents and notable coaches, urging them to reform the game for safety’s sake after 18 deaths were recorded on the collegiate gridiron. Decades later, University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins was so concerned about the commercialization, professionalization, and other negative influences football had on higher education that, in 1939, he eliminated football as a sport at UC (a school that had won two national championships), tore down the football stadium to make his decision stick, and (later, 1946) withdrew from the Big Ten Conference in all intercollegiate sports. And while college basketball was not a major national sport when Hutchins took action, it did not take long for issues to emerge in the cage sport, too. In 1951, for example, a gambling-related point-shaving scandal went public–a scam that involved seven schools and thirty-three players nationally.
Because issues persist to this day in both sports, what I have just described is not a now-and-then story. It is an on-and-on story that has garnered constant attention from analysts and activists. Andrew Zimbalist’s Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports (1999) is one of the numerous scholarly treatments. Ongoing efforts by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and The Drake Group (Academic Integrity in College Sport) are examples of think tank/activist efforts.
Is there any hope of change?
Reform in any field is more likely when something moves in the wrong direction and does so over an extended period—especially when it becomes obvious that there is a huge gap between ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ That is when we hear ‘Unfair!’ and ‘Things need to change!’ We are at that point in college sports today. And eliminating non-revenue-generating sports contributes to that conclusion.
How so? One reason is who is being affected by the program cuts. Nationally, thousands of high school athletes compete each year in sports that colleges are eliminating. It means that future generations of student-athletes will have fewer opportunities to compete collegiately, including young stars participating in Olympic sports. And why is that important? At the 2016 Rio games, college-trained athletes captured nearly 85% of the medals won by Team USA.
Then, there is the matter of academic integrity. Student-athlete has had a wobbly reality in the scheme of revenue-producing sports. Byers authorized the term’s use not to accentuate the student side of the equation but to keep the NCAA, conferences, and schools out of trouble. How so? It was designed to avoid paying workers compensation for injured players. Attorneys advised Byers to shift the lens away from viewing college athletes as employees. Despite its faulty origin, athletes in ‘secondary sports’ have consistently excelled as student-athletes. Among athletes playing 15 Division 1 men’s secondary sports in 2020, 84% was the lowest graduation percentage nationally in any of those sports. For women participating in 16 Division 1 secondary sports, the average graduation rate nationally in 2020 was 94%. Both percentages are lightyears ahead of all-student college graduation rates nationally.
But academic success and program viability are not always tied tightly.
Consider Michigan State as an example. The women’s swimming/diving team ranked #1 in the nation among peers in Fall 2020 Grade Point Average, the men’s team came in sixth among its peers, and MSU swimmers and divers made up a whopping 42% of all MSU student-athletes who made the school’s 20+-team Big Ten All-Academic Team. Instead of being rewarded, those athletes lost their programs.
If those MSU athletes are among the losers (and they are), who are the winners? Winners are the NCAA, universities, football and men’s basketball head coaches and staff, the media, and the array of related businesses, like Nike, who feed at the money trough of big-time, revenue-producing college sports (e.g., the 2019 men’s basketball tournament netted the NCAA over $1 billion).
But what is not generally recognized is just how much money is being spent and the sources of money needed to keep the system viable.
USA Today tracks the numbers regarding revenues and spending in major college sports, and what they report—each year—is the same story. In the aggregate, athletic departments spend just about every dollar they take in. In 2019, the figure was about $11 billion—$ in and $ out—at 227 Division 1 public universities.
Where does the money go? One place is head coaching salaries. According to USA Today, head football coaches at 50 universities earned a total annual salary in 2019 of at least $3 million. In men’s basketball, 26 universities paid their head coaches an equivalent salary. And (gulp), a number of institutions are on both lists, including schools that pay seven-figure salaries to assistant coaches. In addition to coaching salaries, the amount of money devoted to building and upgrading athletic facilities is eyepopping and sobering.
Money by the truckload is the metaphor of choice. It is because the NCAA, unlike the pros, does not have spending caps, and schools spend in an arm’s race-style environment. But to spend it, they must get it. What about those sources?
They come from various places, including athletic philanthropy (donors), which has become a major push at many schools. But there are other sources of which you may not know.
In 2019, for example, over $3 billion of the $11 billion spent came from non-athletic sources, including university general fund allocations and student fees—dollars that are counted as revenues in athletic budgets.
While that is a significant amount of money—and mind you, it is just for one year—it does not capture the uneven landscape that is the reality of intercollegiate college sports. Most of the brand-name schools—the Ohio State’s and Alabama’s of the country—generate sufficient resources to run their athletic programs with few or no subsidies because revenue from ticket sales, media rights, conference cuts, and major donors come into play. But only 15 of 277 schools in USA Today’s 2019 database reside in the ‘no subsidies’ category. And, for 2019, only 40 other schools reported subsidies that are lower than 30% of their revenues.
It means that most major public sports-playing schools need plenty of subsidy revenues—on average, about 60% of total revenues—to finish in the black. The numbers can be eye-popping, too, such as $48 million in subsidies at the University of Houston and $44 million at the University of Connecticut.
And because these are public institutions, taxpayers pay a large portion of the bill. For example, in my home state of Michigan, the total athletic subsidy in 2019 for four Division 1 state schools— Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Oakland universities—amounted to $83.5 million. Remember that it is for one year only. The average subsidy level (total revenues) at those four institutions was 71% of total revenues. That means non-athletic revenues constituted (on average) $7 of every $10 in athletic budgets.
So, if the ledger for reform is adding up, where will reform come from, and what will it look like?
The ship has long since passed when any reasonable person should expect the NCAA or the conferences to lead major changes in the college sports space. And most fans (the primary stakeholders of college sports) are generally disinterested in anything but cheering.
That leaves the courts and legislation, and both have been active. The big push in both domains has been for athletes to gain a share of the money pie, most notably in the area of securing compensation from business enterprises for the use of their name and likeness. Legislatures across the country have passed laws to enable just that.
But there is more: it is the prospect of Federal-level regulation. For years, there has been talk in Washington DC and beyond about the need for an “Athlete’s Bill of Rights” and for Congress to pass legislation that would (in effect) regulate the college sports industry. That chatter may soon become a reality, especially if legislation proposed recently by U.S. Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ)—a former Stanford football player—becomes a reality.
As Sports Illustrated describes it, “Booker’s College Athletes Bill of Rights guarantees NCAA players monetary compensation, long-term health care, lifetime educational scholarships, and even revenue sharing. It would virtually dissolve national letters of intent, bar coaches and administrators from influencing an athlete’s academic decisions, and create a medical trust fund.”
“I have grown dissatisfied with the NCAA’s talk of a lot of reforms and their failure to implement them,” Booker says. “They’ve failed to police themselves and protect athletes as they should.”
While leadership like Booker’s is necessary to achieve college sports reform, you, too, can play a productive role in addressing the upside-down state of college sports.
One way you help turn it right-side-up is by contacting athletic administrators, school presidents, and trustees and tell them how much you value non-revenue college sports—especially if your school has eliminated one or more of those programs. And consider donating money to your non-revenue sports of choice, including at schools where ADs have pledged not to eliminate sports.
What is the bottom line? Sports are unquestionably an important part of America’s culture, but that does not mean we should accept an anything-goes attitude, including enabling college sports to become something they were never intended to be.
If you really love your college or university and see practices that are not right, loyalty should compel you to speak up for the school’s sake and the athletes.
Reform. Reform. Reform.