College Athletics, Academics, and Student Success

There are a host of problems with the system of college athletics. For one thing, it is exploitative of the student athletes, even for those athletes who receive a full scholarship for the duration of their stay at the university.[1] For another, professors and aspirant professors (such as graduate students) grouse that the athletic budgets continue to rise while the academic budgets fall, so that top-tier universities have become sports conglomerates with an attached institution of higher education.[2] It is naive and simplistic to blame athletics for the tribulations of academia, though. And college athletics, whether it is a football game or march madness or some other sport, can be fun to watch.[3] It is also rewarding to watch students succeed in and out of the classroom both. For the students trying to become professional athletes the first measure of that success would be getting drafted and so it was cool to see a student succeed in last night’s NBA draft. Not in a “cool, I knew that person with national name recognition way,”[4] but in a v. public recognition of one student’s success way.


[1] According to the NCAA website, the percentage of student athletes on athletic scholarships in college are less than two percent. There are a number of documentaries, particularly in the ESPN 30 for 30 series, that deal with the issue of NCAA regulations and exploitation of student athletes and take all sorts of different perspectives about payments. “Pony Excess” examines the scandal at SMU in the 1980s and treats the situation as a dirty, out of control system of payments. On the other end of the spectrum, “The U” looks at the University of Miami scandals a decade later and the participants revel in the fact that they broke the rules because the system was unfair to them. Somewhere in between the two extremes falls “The Fab 5,” which looks at Michigan’s basketball program in the early nineties. While “The Fab 5” is at times hyperbolic about Duke and the monumental shifts in the landscape of basketball at that time, some of the more interesting elements are how it examines the relationship between athletics and profit for the university.

On a related note (although not about college athletics), I highly recommend the documentary “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” which examines the system by which Major League baseball recruits and signs players from the Dominican Republic. The system there is significantly more exploitative than even the NCAA is.

[2] There is truth to this statement, even though most sports don’t actually make money beyond attracting students. Using information for 2008 published by ESPN, I created a quick cross-section of some D1 institutions. With budgets sometimes well in excess of one hundred million dollars, eight of the nine institutions sampled ran a surplus, but once university subsidies are again taken out of the revenue, only three did so. Three of the schools operated with deficits of more than ten million dollars. The actual numbers, particularly for media revenue, have changed since 2008, but I suspect that it remains an exemplary sample overall.

I do not mean to declaim collegiate athletics or to self-righteously declare that that money would be better spent on academic scholarships, library books, humanities centers or hiring more tenure track professors, although all those would be in my own personal self-interest. Much of that money, including the money supplied by the university, may not exist without collegiate athletics. There are studies that convincingly demonstrate that successful sports programs bring in donations and increase the number of applications the university receives. Sports, more than academics at most universities, create a national brand and raise the profile of the university that can (even though it does not always) create a symbiotic relationship that bolsters both the athletic and academic programs. I should also note that the most noxious fact on the ESPN chart is that pay for coach often far exceeds the tuition expenses. In athletics, just as in academics…and in the rest of US society, it seems that there is a growing gap in benefits for upper level administrators and the workers. Of course, largely unlike many university presidents, the football coaches are actually critical for the success of the football programs, which leads back to the hope for the ideal symbiosis of athletics and academics.

[3] While the NCAA’s feel-good commercials about helping student athletes succeed in school and then in a career once their playing days are over seem rather phony,[3b] there is some truth to this. Most of the student athletes will not go on to be paid for playing the sports, either. There are also a myriad of other emotions teaching these students, from horror stories about runaway egos, to apathy, to the detachment experienced when national announcers praise a student for being such a vocal and active leader while that same student quietly goes about his business in the classroom. In my experience they are much like other students except longer, broader, lithe-r, and with more demands on their time.

[3b] Phony because like all major sporting organizations, the NCAA is basically a protection racket being run for money-making interests…and one that does more to provide a show of legitimacy than one with actual power over those interests. To wit: the NCAA office of enforcement has a v. limited budget and limited power to investigate or enforce rules. A recent report at Sports Illustrated revealed that the enforcement office itself was in disarray in large part because the president of the NCAA ignored internal reports about payments being made at the University of Miami and then acted shocked when the allegations were presented to them publicly. The V.P. of enforcement was then fired and others have stepped down. This evidently leaves a nominal staff of 60 enforcement personnel, with just two with investigators with experience in football or basketball cases. The enforcement office is still more than two grizzled old cops in a water closet conducting investigations, but there are 125 FBS football schools, more FCS, and hundreds of other sports teams across the country, so the office is heavily dependent on college enforcement offices to do the actual heavy lifting on rules enforcement. This may at times turn out to be a conflict of interest.

[4] Collegiate basketball players good enough to be drafted already had national name recognition.

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