Intercollegiate Athletics: The Tail That Wags The Dog

Hugh Mercer Curtler
Southwest State University, Minn.

Assuming we ever knew where we were going, in America, at least, higher education has lost its way. We are confused about what it is we are supposed to be and what it is we are supposed to do--which is to empower young people, to put them in possession of their own minds. These young people come to us decidedly unfree. For all practical purposes, they cannot read, write, or figure. They therefore cannot think their own thoughts or initiate their own actions, which are the activities that define positive human freedom. These students belong to their parents, to television, to the malls, to advertisers, and to a hedonistic youth culture: though they believe themselves to be so, they are not free in any meaningful sense of that term. They are surrounded by options but they are unable to make informed choices: they cannot separate fact from fiction or reasonable opinions from wishful thinking, nor can they foresee consequences or entertain antithetical points of view. Our secondary schools cannot help because they are caught up in methodology, and society places impossible demands on the underpaid teacher's time. Consequently, as things now stand, the only institutions standing between young people and a lifetime of slavery to whim and to manipulation by others are our colleges and universities, which, for the most part, do not seem to be up to the task. As Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently noted in this regard, "students come to us already profoundly miseducated; we simply complete the job."

Higher education is at present tangled in conflicting ideologies, disputes over territory, and faculty concerns over tenure and job security. We have bought into myths that delude us into thinking education is about providing students with jobs, shoving them into the fast lane on the information highway, or indoctrinating them about cultural diversity in the name of what a zealous handful has determined is social justice. However, "vocational education" is an oxymoron: education should not be confused with job-training, though we would hope that educated persons would be able to find and do a good job; education does not require the most advanced technical gadgets, because faster does not mean better; and finally, education must not be confused with indoctrination, though we would expect free minds to reject injustice wherever it is found.

Because it is hidden in the dust stirred up by these controversies, we can barely make out one of the most widely ignored obstacles standing between students and their inner freedom, namely, the multi-million dollar business we call "intercollegiate athletics." I should like to bring that obstacle into sharper focus.

The problem with intercollegiate athletics is not so much that the football coach at a major university makes considerably more money than the president or, worse yet, the chair of the physics department (who may be a Nobel Laureate), but that intercollegiate athletics as pursued on many American campuses drains away money, energy, and attention from what is central to the education of young people: developing young minds.

Consider some particulars. In a growing number of the more than 300 Division I athletic programs registered with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, corruption is the order of the day. As of this writing, 28 Division I athletic programs are on National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) probation for various infractions of their rules and regulations. Further, as reported recently by the Kansas City Star (5 October 1997), "three Baylor University coaches were convicted of wire fraud for filling out tests for star basketball players to improve their grades. At least 40 other universities have been implicated in the same scheme." This report was written before the scandal broke out at the University of Minnesota in which an athletic department secretary admitted that she had routinely written term papers for a number of men's basketball players over a period of several years. The scandal resulted in the dismissal of at least nine members of the staff, including the basketball coach and the athletic director, and numerous other sanctions imposed by the NCAA The common response to this scandal is that "it happens everywhere, so why single out 'the U'?" This is a terribly weak response, but it may not be far off the mark.

In these larger schools, athletics is big business, although it is not necessarily profitable. In fact, a recent NCAA report revealed that profits in Division I schools fell from $1.1 million in 1995 to $437,000 in 1997. When institutional support is removed, the average Division I program showed a deficit of $823,000 in 1997--as compared to $237,000 in 1995. This means that the universities are bearing the brunt of the financial burden in what is for most of them a losing business./1/

Accordingly, the temptation is great to enlist aid from interested outside agencies, such as large corporations. Further, this aid is readily available: companies such as Nike stand by more than willing to help beleaguered athletic programs out of the hole they have dug for themselves--though corporate assistance is a double-edged sword

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, over a recent five-year period, Nike provided $7.1 million in sports gear and cash. At Duke University, coach Mike Krzyzewski recently signed on with Nike for 15 years at an annual salary of $375,000 plus a $1 million signing bonus--in addition to his coaching salary. It is estimated that his salary, together with fringe benefits, will net Wayne Sabin, the head football coach at Louisiana State University, $1.5 million a year. When confronted by expressions of concern from members of the press when such figures were recently revealed, the head football coach at Florida State University, Bobby Bowden (himself the recent recipient of a five-year contract at a salary of $1 million a year, in addition to $225,000 each year from Nike), was quoted as saying, "Gee whiz...somebody has to pay the bills." As coach Mike O'Cain of North Carolina State University noted, in a masterpiece of understatement, "I hate to use this word, but it's a business."

The problem is not the money, per se, but the attendant temptation to look the other way and to bend the rules to give the gifted athlete a break not usually afforded the non-athlete. "The real worry," according to Jane Stancill of The News Observer in Charlotte, North Carolina, "is that universities are in essence ceding control of their sports programs" to major corporations that have a purely financial interest in the universities themselves. Evidence of this can be found in the rather bizarre example of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), where Nike has the right, by contract, to design a new logo for the university! As noted by Dr. Paul Farel, UNC-CH professor of physiology, "these relationships will undoubtedly lead to the erosion of the university's traditional independence"./2/ I would respectfully suggest that this ship has already sailed.

When we take a closer look at a specific Division I athletic program, the problem becomes manifest. Athletic "scholarships" at the University of Colorado, for example, recently totaled $1,117,000, where, if we can regard Colorado as typical of Division I schools generally, athletes participate in more than two dozen sports (as many as 33 at Princeton), from rowing to rifle and from water polo to fencing. In response to pressures from advocates of Title IX, the NCAA reports that universities are now adding new sports especially for women, such as archery, badminton, bowling, equestrian, ice hockey, squash, synchronized swimming, team handball, and water polo. At some point someone must pause for breath and ask, "What does this have to do with educating young minds?"

The standard response that athletics teaches "cooperation, leadership, competitiveness, and responsibility," that it "builds character," is doubtless sound, but cannot be used to defend intercollegiate athletics at the Division I level. Among other things, it flies in the face of the fact that only 1 to 2 percent of the students at major state universities participate in intercollegiate athletics, and graduation rates among males in "revenue sports," such as basketball and football, are as low as 29 percent. Further, one must raise ethical questions about the exploitation of many of these athletes who are recruited to play sports, given special rewards, encouraged to take mindless course loads (with majors in such subjects as "General Studies"), and allowed to drop out along the way.

Stephanie Pare, of the New York University School of Law, recently addressed this question as it affects both male athletes and (increasingly) female athletes. Arguing for judicial recognition of the property right for personhood (defined as "an individual's control over certain resources in his or her external environment necessary to achieve proper self-development"), Pare noted that "the commodification of college sports--the buying and selling of tickets to athletic events, sports-related merchandise, television rights, or advertisement endorsements, for example--obscures the property interest in personhood by elevating the economic interests of the parties controlling college sports over the self-development of the athlete."/3/ At the University of Tennessee recently, English Professor Linda Bensel-Meyers voiced a number of complaints regarding members of the football team on the grounds that these young men were being exploited. In reviewing the grade reports of 39 of these athletes, she discovered that 37 of them were taking classes that did not lead to any degree whatever. In her words, "instead of offering athletic scholarships to give underprivileged students access to education, UT has implemented a system that exploits athletes for institutional profit, replacing affirmative-action opportunity with a system of institutionalized slavery."/4/ As a reward for her efforts, Mrs. Bensel-Meyers was harassed, her office was broken into, her phone was bugged, and her children were threatened.

Clearly, there is a problem. The question is what, if anything, can be done about it? I have several suggestions, and I hasten to add that I am no enemy of college athletics, having coached intercollegiate tennis successfully for more than 15 years, and being one of the millions who spend the weekend glued to television watching whatever sports happen to come on. But there is something rotten in the athletic department, and drastic measures are in order.

When he was president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins cut the funding for intercollegiate athletics altogether. It was not a popular move, but it made a statement and was an attempt to reestablish priorities at a prestigious university. I would not follow Hutchins's lead, though I would take some steps that many will regard as equally drastic.

To begin with, I would collapse the distinction between Division II and Division III programs and eliminate "athletic scholarships" completely. These scholarships are a major expense and the source of much that is wrong in intercollegiate sports; the arguments that are employed to defend them are clearly bogus, as the testimony of Mrs. Bensel-Meyers suggests. Not that there isn't a genuine need among poor and minority students. There most assuredly is--especially since between 1987 and 1999, high school completion rates among the poor increased 20 percent while, since 1993, "state funding for merit-based financial aid programs, which generally favor middle-class students, has increased 336 percent in real dollars, [as] funding for need-based financial aid programs, which favor poorer students, has risen only 88 percent."/5/ Where there is a genuine need for financial assistance and cultural diversity, these objectives could be achieved by pooling the money now used for athletic "scholarships" and distributing it on the basis of need and a demonstrated desire (and ability) to succeed.

Secondly, at the Division I level where the problems I have noted abound, I would recommend eliminating all pretense by admitting that major sports at that level are a proving ground for professional athletics--especially football, basketball (both men's and women's), and, to a lesser extent, baseball. Young people who choose to participate in athletics at that level should not be required to attend classes and they should be paid to play: athletes at the major universities thereby becoming members of minor league teams sponsored by the universities and their alumni. In fact, the new Development League sponsored by the National Basketball Association is a step in this direction--except that the teams in the new league will not be sponsored by universities and the minimum age of 20 is a bit high.

In the event that some of the athletes on these teams actually want to pursue an education, they can pay tuition along with everyone else. Presumably, they will be better able to do this with the money they make from athletics. This step would remove the hypocrisy that exists at present, and the universities would be able to apply the most promising of current business practices to organized sport, without worrying about interference from the NCAA In the event that the costs of fielding a professional team become prohibitive, the universities can eliminate play-for-pay and move to the Division II level where, even as things now stand, financial losses from athletics are typically less than at the Division I level. With the elimination of athletic "scholarships," losses would be further reduced. In the event that costs are still prohibitive, the universities would have to eliminate some of the sports programs--a reasonable proposal given the large number of sports that involve such a small number of students (and one that is already being adopted by a number of Division I schools). Dropping football at a typical Division II school that currently offers "scholarships" to athletes, for example, can save that school close to $200,000 a year, according to a recent NCAA study. To encourage greater student participation in sports, a larger share of the athletic budget could then be allocated to intramural sports.

The strength of this model is simply that it is more honest, since very few of the athletes in major sports at the Division I level are students in anything but the loosest sense of that term. On a more positive note, since the perks that athletes currently receive at the Division I level--scholarships, meals, medical treatment, automobiles, etc.--"do not come close to representing the value of the athletes to the school in publicity, revenues, etc.," this model would acknowledge that these athletes are professionals and treat them accordingly.

Stephanie Pare, who wrote the comments just quoted, does not propose steps nearly as radical as those suggested here. She thinks it will suffice to "change our perspective on college sports and develop a model of sport as other than a forum where certain parties can make money and student-athletes can strive for fame. Rather than yielding to commodification and focusing on the results and pressuring teams to win, our universities, coaches, and student-athletes should focus on a process-oriented version of sport that recognizes that sport is a social phenomenon that produces social relationships among participants."/6/ I think that such a change in perspective would indeed be healthy, but it may be even more unrealistic than my plan. What Ms. Pare hopes to see cannot happen as long as athletics is big business and at the same time is considered as educationally defensible.

The model I have suggested takes us to the heart of the problem, since it allows professional athletes to be recognized and rewarded for what they are and eliminates the need for watchdog organizations such as the NCAA to patrol the halls of academe looking for possible violations of hypocritical codes that merely disguise the fact that so many athletes under review want nothing more than simply to play sports, while their sponsoring institutions, in large measure, simply want the prestige and profits that come from winning.

At the Division II level in my model, where athletes do not play for pay, there is hope that athletes can compete for the love of their sport. By taking such a step, and encouraging greater participation in intramurals, we would move closer to the ideal Ms. Pare sketches for us and to the balance the Greeks sought when they advocated "gymnastics" as a part of every young man's education.

We need to continually remind ourselves that education ought to be, as noted above, a process that empowers students, one that puts them in possession of their own minds. It is a process that takes young people who are patently unfree and engenders in them power over their own thoughts and the ability to make informed, self-determined choices. It is a difficult process, at best, and it requires careful guidance on the part of faculty members and hard work on the part of the students themselves. In its rightful place, athletics can contribute to the goal of the well-rounded student; it cannot presume to lead the way.


  1. The information included in this paper, unless otherwise noted, was gathered from the Internet.[Back]

  2. News Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, 9 November 1997.[Back]

  3. "Playing College Sports," by Stephanie Pare, N.Y.U Law School, 1998. (Online).[Back]

  4. Kansas City Star, Sunday, 25 June 2000. Section C.[Back]

  5. A.P. Wireservice: Marshall Independent, 22 February 2001, 4B.[Back]

  6. Pare, op. cit.[Back]

Contents | Home