Robert A. Levine 8-12-14
Once upon a time the United States had the best educational system in the world, American universities as its crowning achievement. During that period, universities understood that their primary mission was education, with research as a secondary objective.
Today, however, many of America’s largest universities have changed their paramount goal, with athletic pre-eminence in football and basketball now the central driving force instead of education. This transformation has been reinforced by the recent action by the NCAA to allow the five major conferences to virtually set their own rules in terms of how athletic competition and “scholarships” should be handled. The new ruling, if it takes effect, will provide the universities in these conferences with an added advantage in terms of recruiting high school athletes.
Actually, the large universities sold their souls earlier when they succumbed to the allure of television dollars, rearranging their conferences and poaching other universities to join them, making their teams more attractive to television viewers. This way they were able to obtain more lucrative contracts from the television networks and companies that sold sports paraphernalia.
One might say it may have been all about money. However, looking at the numbers shows that money must not have been the most important issue. It’s more about keeping up with the competition and looking good for alumni. You might think these universities might be smart enough to evaluate the lack of financial benefits, but obviously the people at the top appear unable to do the math. (Maybe this is one of the reasons American students perform so poorly on global math tests.)
A recent report revealed that only twenty Division One athletic programs produced enough revenue to cover the costs of their programs. During the last ten years, universities in the top tier in football have seen their athletic expenses skyrocket from $28.9 million in 2004 to $62.2 million last year. If the new NCAA rules go into effect, costs will probably increase significantly, estimates being in the range of $5 million extra every year. Currently, $75,000 is spent annually for each athlete, compared to $41,000 ten years ago.
And the salaries of the football and basketball coaches dwarf those of the top professors at these universities, revealing what the value system of these institutions really is. Academics are really secondary, with athletics king. Alabama’s head football coach is paid $6.9 million annually, his defensive coordinator $1.35 million and the offensive coordinator $680,000. Even the strength and conditioning coach makes nearly $400,000 a year. If these payments are not offensive for a supposed “academic institution,” I don’t know what is.
Of course, the above spending does not include the cost of athletic facilities and equipment. The athletic “arms race” involves having the best weight and conditioning rooms, indoor practice fields, and of course the stadiums and field houses themselves, with special boxes for favored alumni.
What is not publicized by the focus on athletics at these universities is the favoritism in the admission of athletes, the poor graduation rates of the athletes, the special courses that are tailored for athletes, and the way some professors pass athletes in their courses without the necessary work being done. Not only do these actions degrade the universities, but they also cheat the athletes by not forcing them to study and learn before they go out into the world.
For American universities to maintain their stature by pursuing their primary objective of higher education, they must be disconnected from big-time athletics. This may seem naïve with the promise of large sums of money from television contracts, but the fact remains that most athletic programs are not profitable for the universities and distort what should be the values of these institutions. The athletic tail has been wagging the educational dog instead of the other way around.
Downsizing the athletic programs in the Big Five conferences so that they are truly amateur like Division Three or the Ivy League would be the preferable path to take, but does not seem realistic at this point. A better answer might be to have the teams associated with their universities in paid developmental leagues without enrolling the players as students, which is a sham anyway. If the players were interested in educations, they could be provided with scholarships, but their performance in school would not affect their eligibility to play their particular sports.
The universities need to be universities concentrating on education and research, rather than athletic factories for the professional leagues. The umbilical cord between the universities and their athletic departments needs to be cut to end the emphasis on athletics and transform these institutions into oases of higher learning.