A sentiment I seem to encounter often is that it is wrong for college sports to be such a big-money business, and that tying the high expenditures of running nationally prominent programs and the corresponding high ticket prices to the pursuit of higher education is a practice that should be tempered, downplayed, or disbanded altogether. This thought process universally comes from those who are not sports fans themselves, but more importantly, it typically comes from a position of ignorance for how the world of collegiate athletics actually functions. I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter by any means, but I have noticed a significant amount of evidence that contradicts the basis for nearly all of these arguments.
“This is what my tuition money goes towards?” While that might be a funny comment to make, especially as a means of downplaying a particularly embarrassing loss by your school’s team, it’s not based in any sort of truth. I heard this often at the University of Illinois, whose school paper recently ran an article that explicitly disputes it: “We take no university funds,” assistant athletics director Kent Brown was quoted as saying. This is, as I understand it, typically the case at major university athletic departments: they are self-sustaining (and then some), through booster contributions, ticket sales, and media contracts.
The funniest recent example of this type of dispute coming to a head was when a “reporter” last month asked Connecticut men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun if he might be morally obligated to return a portion of his nearly $2 million salary to the school, as the state’s highest-paid employee during a time of economic crisis. Calhoun responded in the manner of making the strongest argument possible: with facts.
He points out what should be obvious, that in the true fashion of capitalism, college athletics are big business because they are profitable. The sports teams are in a mutually beneficial relationship with their institutions: they promote their university’s image nationally, while bringing in high dollar amounts for the school in the process ($12 million a year, according to Calhoun, in the case of Connecticut’s men’s basketball program—and their women’s team, as one of the top women’s basketball programs in the country, presumably does nearly or equally as well). In exchange, by being tied to universities, the sports programs get a semblance of credibility (and innocence) that they would not have were they not affiliated with educational institutions. There’s also the fact that they often attract a lot of student-athletes who would not have otherwise attended college at all, in some cases (as with Bob Knight’s track record, for example) maintaining graduation as the ultimate goal. The argument here is often that these athletes are less deserving of receiving the educations they are given for free, which might have some validity, though it’s hard for those adopting this position to phrase it in a way that doesn’t smell of racial undertones.
What I mostly take issue with, at any rate, is how this discussion is often framed as being a matter of those who are concerned with the “purity” of higher education decrying the institution’s sullying at the hands of those silly sports. As if a student-athlete is doing anything less valuable, or serving a lesser social function, than the more traditional areas of study. Personally, I don’t see much of a difference between a major in Sports Management and one in, say, Philosophy or History or any of the other liberal arts degrees that are notoriously the butt of jokes about their applicability to the job market. In measurements involving the bottom line, especially, I certainly find Jim Calhoun’s to be the more compelling argument.