American Exceptionalism #2: College Athletics

Other countries of course have intercollegiate athletics, but nowhere are they as popular, important and corrupting as in the United States.  It is not at all clear how athletics became so ensconced in the American university, but certainly a major factor is the fact that American schools are essentially businesses.  Even state institutions, which receive part of their funding from the state government, are dependent upon tuition and donations, and there is a belief that a high profile sports program will attract more students and contributions.  That the average student is moved by this is very questionable, but alumni donors are clearly influenced by athletic success.  In fact, to many in the community the university is nothing more than its football and basketball teams.  Further, because of television revenues, successful football and basketball programs can earn huge amounts of money, particularly in the post-season.  In 2013 March Madness, the college basketball playoffs, earned $1.15 billion in ad revenue, and $200 million was divided up among the participating schools.  And the general economic impact is mind boggling: it is estimated that the 2014 March Madness generated $13 billion in revenues.



The National Football League and the National Basketball Association are also driving forces, since it is the universities that feed new players into the professional teams.  The other major American sport, baseball, also draws players, but college level baseball is virtually a minor sport compared to football and basketball, and professional baseball has a system of minor league teams as a feeder system.  For the NFL and the NBA American universities are the minor leagues, the farm clubs, and they cost the professional teams nothing.  They cost the schools a lot.

The real face of the American university

The real face of the American university

Basketball and especially football programs are expensive.  Equipment, travel and facility costs are huge, and because of their popularity, even in the case of low profile and losing teams, there is constant pressure to upgrade those facilities.  Then there are the coaches, who are becoming more and more expensive, often regardless of success.   Consider the state schools.  Last year the highest paid state employee in 47 of the 50 states was with either a football or a basketball coach.  At my former institution, the University of New Mexico, a low quality school in a very poor state, the 2014 base salary (not including bonuses and perks) of the basketball coach, Craig Neal, is roughly $750,000.  The football coach for 2009 and 2010, Mike Locksley, also earned $750,000 a year and won exactly two games.  He was fired early in the 2011 season, despite the huge buyouts that are typically part of coaching contracts.  Coincidentally, as a successful faculty member for thirty-one years, I earned a grand total of approximately $750,000.



Very few schools, even in the high-profile conferences, earn a profit from athletics, and those that do pump it back into their athletic programs.  Meanwhile, the vast majority of college football and basketball programs do not earn enough revenue to even support themselves, and since the money spent on minor sports – and to a degree women’s sports – is miniscule, those dollars must come from the general fund of the university.  This is one part of the corrupting influence.  Resources that would have been used in support of what one might suppose is the essential mission of the university, education, are drained off by football and basketball.  And this is ultimately to the benefit the multi-billion dollar NFL and NBA, who contribute absolutely nothing.  Incidentally, while the thirty-two teams in the NFL are taxpaying businesses, the NFL itself is a non-profit tax exempt organization, yet one that paid commissioner Roger Goodell $44.2 million.



Because American schools require students to pay tuition and sundry fees, promising “student” athletes can be paid with scholarships, which represent considerable sums, given the skyrocketing cost to attend an American university, especially the private institutions.  Adding equipment, travel and other expenses dramatically raises the cost to the school.  Consider these expenditures in the six most important football conferences: the cost per student is $10,000 to $20,000; the cost per athlete is $42,000 to $164,000.  And insult is added to injury inasmuch as most of the “student” athletes are students in name only, only going through the motions of attending classes and supported by teams of personal tutors.  Football and basketball stars also get preferential treatment, often engaging in behaviors that would get actual students thrown out of the institution.  One frequently hears coaches explaining such things as shoplifting and drunken driving with phrases such as “blowing off steam,” as if outright criminality was normal for a twenty year old.



Then there are the athletes themselves, who are exploited by the universities to a degree not seen since the early days of the industrial revolution.  They do get a free ride at increasingly expensive schools, but inasmuch as very few acquire a real education (the graduation rate for football and basketball players is inevitably well below that of students and frequently below 50%) this is a benefit of questionable value.  Meanwhile, they are spending huge amounts of their time earning money for their institutions, most particularly to pay the generally fat salaries of athletic personnel, especially coaches, who may be making in one year more money than most of them will see in a lifetime.  Playing for an NFL or NBA team of course means earning millions, but only a tiny percentage of college players will be drafted into the professional ranks.  It is estimated that the average market value of top level college football and basketball players is well over $100,000, which means the schools are getting an incredible deal.  Further, with the merchandising of such things as jerseys a university can make huge amounts of money off an individual player, who is barred from receiving any of it.



The universities are obviously quite pleased with the system and have resisted all attempts to provide actual compensation to their athletes, insisting that they are not workers but students.  In fact they are workers, employed in programs that can generate millions in revenues and are every bit as professional as the teams they aspire to join.  The University of Alabama football team, for example, is considered to have a market value greater than any of the teams in the National Hockey League.  And the National Collegiate Athletic Association is losing its grip, especially in football, as schools are acting on their own to rearrange conferences in order generate more money.

Alabama - the most important school in America

Alabama – the most important school in America



The whole sham edifice of college athletics is beginning to crumble, however.  Last month the National Labor Relations Board agreed with football players at Northwestern University that they are indeed employees and entitled to engage in collective bargaining.  This decision applies only to private schools, but state schools are almost certain to follow, particularly since the major football powers are state institutions, and the issue may well go to the Supreme Court.  But while this development may clear away the obvious nonsense of amateur athletics and student athletes, it is likely to only further injure the American university.  Football and basketball will become an even more important facet of the university and suck up even more resources, as schools compete for good players by offering them more money.



College sports may have once had some vague relationship to higher education – sportsmanship and all that – but that is gone forever.  In an institution that is already a business, unlike higher education in the rest of the industrial democracies, sports have become another and growing aspect of that business, one that has absolutely nothing to do with education.  The American university is already pricing itself beyond the reach of most young Americans, supporting ever larger and more expensive administrative structures, and football and basketball are another growing and irrelevant drain on resources.  On the other hand, the American public school system is failing so dramatically that perhaps we no longer need higher education.









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