Why I’m Conflicted About College Athletics

As a college professor doing research in higher education finance and accountability policy, there are many times when my enjoyment of college athletics leaves me conflicted. I enjoy watching my beloved Wisconsin Badgers get the best of (most of) their Big Ten opponents on a regular basis, but I also recognize that at all but the few dozen wealthiest universities, college athletics are heavily subsidized by student fees. (Answering whether athletics programs are actually profitable is very difficult due to concerns with cost allocations, assumptions about whether students are induced to attend because of athletics, and how revenue is disbursed.)

In the past year, colleges in the “Power Five” athletic conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Pacific-12, and Southeastern Conferences) gained additional autonomy from the rest of the NCAA. They then voted to increase athletic scholarships by $2,000-$4,000 per year per athlete to cover the full cost of attendance, which is definitely a good thing for those athletes. Other Division I colleges can choose to also increase scholarships, but not without significant budgetary implications. For a college with 250 scholarship athletes (not an unrealistic number for a college with football), the cost could approach one million dollars per year. My concern is that those increases are likely to be funded out of the pockets of students and/or by cutting non-revenue sports like wrestling and track and field.

Other things that college athletic programs do are unambiguously bad for athletes. A recent example of this is with national letters of intent, which bind athletes to a college at the end of the recruiting process. Earlier this month, prized linebacker recruit Roquan Smith made news by accepting a football scholarship from UCLA without signing the letter of intent. Once a letter is signed, a student cannot transfer without losing eligibility unless the college decides to let the student out. In the meantime, coaches often leave for other jobs without facing any employment restrictions.

As a professor, I also worry about the increased number of televised weeknight games long distances from campus that cause athletes difficulties attending class. It’s great to get exposure for your college on national television (and get serious television dollars), but this places a burden on athletes and faculty who work with those students. But if I’m not teaching one evening and a good game is on, will I watch it? Quite possibly. Should I? No.

I’m curious to get readers’ thoughts about how they manage the pros and cons of big-time college athletics. Even when the game is going on, I can’t help think about the students and the dollar signs behind them.

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University, is data manager of the Washington Monthly College Guide.