(Written by Kelsey Backus)
One of my outspoken psychology professors has a particular line he likes to fall back on when things go wrong in the classroom. When the white board markers in the room are shot and there isn’t a working one to be found, my professor mumbles, “The football team must have needed more revenue, so we don’t get working markers today.” The class laughs and then gazes uncomfortably around the room, looking for an identifiable athlete.
This particular professor makes it a point to say that he does not follow the university’s sporting teams and has a particularly strong disliking for the football team. It seems he is not the only professor who is frustrated with the focus of athletics over academics at American universities. Students’ opinions appear to be more varied, though, based on my personal conversations with friends.
The biggest problem with our discussions is that many of the people participating in this discussion, from students to professors to college sports fans, don’t have the slightest idea as to how the economics of college sports work. Is each sport funded by its own tickets and merchandise sales? Are they funded by the tuition we pay every semester? By private donors? Does anyone outside the NCAA really know the answer to these questions or is it hidden under piles of dense legalese, not to be understood?
Contrary to popular belief, only 23 of 228 athletics departments at NCAA Division 1 public schools were able to bring in enough money to cover their expenses in 2012. Of that group, only 7 did not receive some form of subsidy. The NCAA itself made $871.6 million for the year 2011-12. According to the NCAA, 96 percent is distributed directly to the Division 1 membership, to support championships, or to fund programs that benefit student athletes. The remaining 4 percent stays within the NCAA, covering admin costs, building operations, and salaries. (http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/public/NCAA/Finances/index.html)
Thanks to TV contracts and merchandise sales, these student athletes are becoming worth more and more. According to Ramongi Huma of the National College Players’ Association, the average Division 1 football player would be worth around $121,000 per year and the average basketball player closer to $265,000 (thanks to March Madness). So some of these student athletes are worth more to the NCAA and their university than the scholarship they are receiving, and, thanks to the demands of the sport on top of schooling, are unable to take on a job at the same time to make money that goes toward living expenses. There is no doubt that being a college athlete is demanding but what would paying them possibly do to the system as we know it?
By paying a college athlete through means other than a scholarship, the student athlete becomes an employee. Employees are subject to contracts complete with salaries, worker’s compensation, cuts, and trades. Students could potentially be traded away to a university that doesn’t provide their intended major. How do you distribute this money fairly? The University of Texas takes in an abundance of money compared to that of South Dakota State University. Do these athletes receive the same paycheck or do they make money based on how well the name on the back of their jersey sells? Is it only football and men’s basketball that must break away into this system? Do the other sports continue on as they are? And what about Title IX? How on earth do we maintain equal funding of men’s and women’s sports in a system that so obviously favors men? Men’s basketball and football could potentially become separate entities to avoid issues with unequal funding by gender. In this case, the university no longer provides support for the students. The NCAA runs it all.
However, should this be the case, the university no longer benefits from these sports either. Sports programs, whether they are profitable or not, are good for universities. They provide talented students with an extracurricular activity and, for some, a way to pay for a college education that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to receive. Alumni crowd into stadiums to watch their alma mater play, thinking fondly of the old days, and are willing to donate money to the university itself. Additionally, when a university has a good men’s basketball or football team, interest in the university by potential students increases due to the national attention the university receives. South Dakota State only recently gained national attention when the men’s basketball team made the NCAA tournament the last two years in a row. Certainly, the NCAA and its employees are not the only people who benefit from the money made in these two sports. The question then becomes whether or not the university can make up for this loss of revenue and marketing through their profitable sports teams.
As my psychology professor likes to point out, it often feels as though academics come second on a university campus these days. Maybe sending “college” football and men’s basketball off to become their own entities wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Universities would find other ways to make money via research, invention, and land grant opportunities. Perhaps this is the way in which colleges can return to the way they were meant to be: institutions of higher learning.