Money, College Athletics and Academics: Why they Don’t Mix

Headlines this week within the sports and higher education circles centered on University of Maryland’s Football program that plans to switch conferences, join the Big 10. The reason? Cash, cold hard cash. Apparently Maryland’s athletics programs have been running a deficit of $5 million a year, and are having a hard time making ends meet. Though the headline of this blog post states we shouldn’t‘ care, I suggest we should care, but more about how college athletics dominates and overshadows academics and the education of college kids. Furthermore in Division I and Ivy league schools, sports programs have been known to influence the institutions’ decisions, policies and sometimes even better judgement. It’s about money – money driven by sports fans, television contracts and endorsements, all at the expense of academics.

Let’s look at the parallels between college athletics and college academics to examine why this focus is wrong. Wrong because the focus and attention given to athletic programs (football and basketball for the most part) is totally out of whack. Higher education institutions are in big trouble, with tuition rates that are out of control and shrinking funds for public institutions. Yet the trouble is more than financial. Parents, students and employers are questioning the value of a college degree. Even more so now as students are unable to find jobs when they graduate, and have a boat load of debt. Employers lament that college graduates aren’t skilled for the jobs that they need to fill, can’t communicate effectively or think critically.  Many say higher education is in a bubble, and that bubble is going to burst soon. It is unsustainable. Not to mention that the traditional modes of higher education appear unable to adapt to the needs of our global and digital culture.

Ohio State University, Stadium. The fourth largest football stadium in the United States

The Cost of College Athletics
College athletics programs are expensive to run and the majority of programs don’t generate profits. Building stadiums to hold the fans is expensive (granted stadiums are usually funded with outside donations and ticket sales). So is building athletic facilities for teams, training equipment, coaches salaries, and of course conference fees. Don’t forget the administrative costs, travel costs, and if a school breaks NCAA rules or the law, there are court fees, payouts, lawyer fees etc.  It’s expensive. No wonder there are deficits.  This is why University of Maryland jumped ship and went to the Big 10. The athletics department was running a deficit as mentioned above, which forced them to cut seven of its 27 varsity sports teams this past summer. Yet things are looking much brighter this month with an infusion of cash on its way. And according to University of Maryland, “By being members of the Big Ten Conference, we will be able to ensure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for decades to come.Yet higher education institutions may look much different in decades to come.

The Academic Deficit
Financial: Off the field and in the lecture halls, we have problems too. Tuition for higher education as increased over 1,000% since 1978, far outpacing the cost of other consumable good or service, including medical care. Yet the quality of education is declining, the current system is failing, falling under a mound of debt that is being passed on to students.  Student debt is an economic concern, more than two-thirds of student graduate with significant debt load and many are unable to find full-time jobs.

The academic performance of students is also declining in a big way. SAT scores for 2011 declined for the third year in row, and students do less work in college now than ever before. The bright side is there are numerous models of education for higher ed coming forth that defy traditional education models. These new models focus on lowering costs, increasing access for students and improving quality. These schools focus on student learning, attempt to fix the system by preparing students for jobs of the 21st century. Higher ed needs to reform and adapt to meet the needs of today’s students. Does college athletics fit into this new model?

What is more Important?
I believe [sadly] that if the public were surveyed about what would be more important, either saving academic programs of a school or the football program (or basketball), that a significant number would vote for the sports programs. Yes, we have a problem. We need to start asking questions to solve this problem – what is the purpose of higher education? What is the role of college sports programs in academic institutions? How are students being served by college sports? These questions have no easy answers.  I’ve included several articles and statistics below that readers may find interesting and helpful when considering these questions. My goal is to motivate readers to support academics, promote scholarship and help prepare our young people so that they become good citizens, self-sufficient adults, and life-long learners. Does a multimillion dollar college football program contribute to this?

Innovative Higher Ed Institutions (some without college athletic programs)
Inventing a New Kind of College, by Emily Hanford, American RadioWorks
University Now, Making Higher Education Affordable to Everyone
Southern New Hampshire University, Innovation U

Related Articles:
Expansion by Big 10 may Bring Small Playoff, New York Times Blog
Student Loan Debt Statistics, American Student Assistance
College Sports Deluxe: The Golf Team, WSJ

Photo Credits:
Money, By 401K2012’s photo stream, Flickr, Ohio State Stadium, by mjum’s photo stream, Flickr

Is it Back-to-School or Back-to-Football?

Does High School football upstage academics?

Back-to-school time is my favorite time of year, not just because my kids are out of the house and back into a routine, but I have the wild idea that they will be intellectually challenged and learning great things. Which I’m confident will happen for the most part.  And, I know learning reaches beyond their academic studies.  High school teaches kids life lessons through friendships – relationships with authority figures, teachers and coaches, as well as about rules and boundaries.

Participation in school sports provides yet another opportunity for learning, the sport skills aside, more importantly it’s the teamwork, cooperation and discipline. Yet these past two weeks I’ve noticed football, football and more football – to the point that it is,  back-to-football. High school football in the United States appears to hold a special status; regional and even national newspapers have a section dedicated in their news reports for high school athletics (now dominated by football), and even football athlete ‘profiles’ in local magazines and newspapers.

I suggest that our current culture focuses on High School football at the expense of school academics and other activities. Furthermore, football and other high-profile varsity sports can even discourage sports participation in other less gifted students, and divert attention and funds away from other beneficial activities.  I could provide a long list of examples to support my hypothesis, though I’ll limit it to just a few for the sake of your time.

Here are some examples I came across this week:

Los Angeles Times

Above: USA Today, September 4, 2012

Above: Orange County Illustrated, September 4, 2012

Above image from  Max Preps company website:

MaxPreps is America’s Source for High School Sports. We are proud to be involved with America’s hometown heroes – the young men and women working hard to improve their skills, place team above self, and serve as inspirations to their local communities. MaxPreps aspires to cover every team, every game and every player. We do this in partnership with nearly 25,000 varsity coaches throughout the United States.

I encourage parents and coaches to come to their own conclusions, but think of this: what message might we be sending to  high school kids when school sports results and performance make regional and national sports headlines? Or when athletes are featured in local magazine profiles in glossy full pages given a celebrity-like status? I am thinking not just of our own children, but students of our community – from diverse backgrounds, different cultures, family structures, or socio economic backgrounds.

There is some interesting research in this area, which I’ll save for another post. In the meantime it is back-to-school time, an exciting time of year. A fresh start for students to tackle a new school year, to learn, grow and learn those life skills that they will need to take our place.

The Myth of the Sports Scholarship

I don’t think I’ll be bursting anyone’s bubble to write that students who go to college on a sports scholarship are ‘working’ for the college – are essentially employees. The job is demanding, and not for the faint of heart. The select few of paid athlete-students, are reimbursed with a portion of college costs, (in rare cases a full-ride), academic tutors, priority registration for classes and in return are expected to compete, practice and represent his or her respective college. Oh, and of course study, go to class and forge new relationships and [hopefully] figure out a career path of some sort to follow at the end of four if not five years.

Sound good so far?  There’s more –  schedules are grueling, early morning practices, weekly conditioning sessions, ‘voluntary’ practices (anything over 20 hours per week is  ‘voluntary’). On top of this keep in mind that these athlete-students need to keep up with school work, attend classes, make-up missed classes, complete assignments and study for exams.

An exaggeration? I don’t think I’m far off. One athlete-student on a football scholarship shares his view with journalist Gary Smith from Sport Illustrated in a recent article;  Wonman Joseph Williams, a fourth-string defensive back for University of Virginia says this:

“It’s like a job,” says Joseph. “We’re only students to a certain extent. Sports have become such a big money-maker that it’s all about the bottom line, like so much else in our society. It not only limits your potential to pursue academics but punishes you when your dedication to academics interferes with your sport. Most football and basketball players can’t take any of the difficult classes. You’re not able to take advantage of what these great schools have to offer. It’s not even amateur athletics anymore. It’s professional.”  (Smith, 2012)

What about AthleteStudent part?
As Williams stated it’s a job. And that ‘job’ is far more demanding than a part-time job at the local college coffee shop. There is a price to pay for being a athlete-student, and the price is fulfillment of academic, intellectual and personal growth. One of Smith’s professor’s at University of Virginia, Harry Edwards, admits that the athletes do miss out, in a big way. More often than not professor Edwards sees academically curious students who just can’t invest the time or energy in their studies even if they want to.

“It’s a horrific schedule,” says Edwards, who over the last three decades has watched athletes stop taking classes that start after 1 p.m., classes with labs, classes that require their time on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. Study abroad in the off-season, even if you’re a Division III relief pitcher? Don’t be silly.” Harry Edwards, Sociology Professor, former a track and field and basketball star at San Jose State in the early ’60s. (Smith, 2012). 

What is the answer to this dilemma? How can we support our kids to be well-rounded, capable, intellectually curious adults that are able to pursue a path that leads to an adulthood that is fulfilling? Education is part of the answer, as is freedom to build relationships with diverse people, and pursue academics interests. However working at a ‘job’ that involves more than 20 hours a week of commitment, that is physically and emotionally demanding, is not conducive to studying, pursuing academic interests, growing intellectually and building relationships. That my friends, is the great myth of the sports scholarship.

Why don’t more Athletes take a Stand? Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated, July 9, 2012
How Youth Sports Encourages Kids to be Dullards, Bob Cook, Blog Post