I enjoy sports, and, as a semi-alumnus of Syracuse University, I can get excited about college sports, particularly during March Madness. (Go Orange!) At the same time, I am also a teacher, and I find the overemphasis on sports at colleges and universities ridiculous. Sports are entertainment and an undeniable part of the college experience, but they should not overshadow the main raison d'etre of institutions of higher learning: drug- and alcohol-fueled partying.
But seriously, folks.
An article in the Times ("How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life") rehashes the by-now all-too-familiar fact that big-time college sports programs have become a driving force in higher education. Students often choose colleges because of athletic--not academic--excellence; they neglect academic responsibilities to engage in sports-related activities; and universities spend comparatively obscene amounts of money on sports programs while treating academic programs as budgetary afterthoughts. The article then provides the similarly familiar hand-wringing over what is to be done.
Fans will be fans, and while the tremendous media exposure of college sports has probably inspired increases in student enthusiasm, we shouldn't spend too much time lamenting the amount of energy students devote to rooting on their favorite teams. Those are, ultimately, personal choices. If a student fails a final because he stayed up all night celebrating Duke's victory over North Carolina, that's really of concern to no one other than the student and whoever is paying for his college "education." There is, however, a fairly simple way to restore some balance to the financial side of the equation.
One of the things that infuriates critics of collegiate athletics--and, indeed, annoys even those like Your-Not-So-Humble-Correspondent who enjoy college sports--is the disproportionate amount of money that colleges lavish on athletics. New Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer signed a contract worth a minimum of $4 million a year. According to a 2010 report, Big Ten colleges spent, on average more than six times as much per student on athletics as they did on academics. The institutions will claim that such spending is necessary to remain competitive both in athletics and in student recruitment: If one college doesn't spend the money, another one will, and the first college will suffer as a result. So what's needed is a mechanism to persuade all universities to reduce spending on athletics.
Here's a thought: All colleges and universities, public or private, receive public money, either in the form of student financial aid or grants or subsidies or some combination of all of these. What if a law were passed saying that any college that spends disproportionately on athletics--say, more than twice what it spends per student on non-athletes--becomes ineligible to receive any public funding? Wouldn't it be lovely if, for every athletic scholarship awarded, a college also had to offer a full ride to a promising academic all-star? Such requirements would go a long way towards reaffirming the importance of colleges' academic mission, and they would also provide a great incentive for universities to reconsider their priorities in a more socially constructive way.