What should America do about college sports?

In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving the football program at Penn State University, many pundits wonder if there’s something wrong with college athletic departments. There is, but the solutions people offer seem way off.

According to a piece by Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic:

It’s hard not to wonder: Is college football really good for college? Taylor Branch delivered a tour de force take for The Atlantic this year on the injustices suffered by big time collegiate athletes. But what about the rest of the university? What does football culture do for the students who don’t play every Saturday? What does football do for schools’ finances? Their academics? Their reputations?

As Weissmann points out, winning teams might lead more students to apply to the school but they also seem to be bad for student grades. Furthermore, big sports seem to often lose money.

Meanwhile, however, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Joe Nocera arguing that colleges should just pay college athletes because the existing system, one of free labor, is so unfair.

Both of these positions seem a little extreme. Actually wouldn’t everyone just be rather better off with normal, reasonable, athletic programs? Less money and less prestige would surely be a better way to keep athletic scandals away.

The problem is not that college students playing football or basketball is, in and of itself, actually a problem. Problems, indeed, seem to occur in places where schools just place too much emphasis on college athletics.

In 1937 the Heisman Trophy, the award to America’s outstanding college football player, went to Clint Frank of Yale. Frank later established a successful Chicago advertising agency and died in 1992. The runner up that year was Byron White of the University of Colorado, who briefly played for the Detroit Lions and served as United States Supreme Court justice from 1962 to 1993.

It’s almost unimaginable to think of two similar people vying for the Heisman Trophy today. That’s probably indicative of quite how far college sports have become removed from actual college.

Eliminating college sports is just a nonstarter; fans are too devoted. But paying student athletes? That, if anything, would indicate that college athletes are much more important than the other students. Is this really where we want to go with college sports? [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer