First, Murray Sperber, Indiana University professor:
One of the great myths about March Madness is that it earns huge sums of money for participating schools. Yes, CBS pays billions of dollars — over many years — to televise the games but only a very small amount of that money trickles down to the Division I schools eligible to play in the tournament.
The money is less a bonanza for colleges and universities than a lottery. To get a ticket, the N.C.A.A. requires every Division I school to have many teams in many sports and many athletes on scholarship — and almost all of these teams are in money-losing sports. Indeed, last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the N.C.A.A. conceded that almost every athletic department in the United States, including those at schools participating in March Madness, generates red ink.
While the N.C.A.A. tournament generates billions of dollars, even the schools and conferences that do well in the games lose a lot of money.
But according to standard university accounting methods, an athletic department cannot end the year in deficit. Thus universities frequently mop up the red ink by taking money from other sources, especially their general operating funds. This is money that could go to student loans, faculty grants and other worthy academic enterprises.
In the last decade, the N.C.A.A. has raised the cost of its lottery tickets. As a result, a number of schools like Georgetown University, with outstanding basketball teams but no Division I football squads, were coming close to breaking even in their athletic department finances until the N.C.A.A. stepped in and required the school to field an expensive, money-losing football program.
So while March Madness generates billions of dollars, athletic departments lose a lot of money. Even the schools and conferences that do well in the tournament and receive seven-figure payouts are forced to put every dime of that money toward their athletic department expenses and deficits — and that’s why the academic departments see very little, if any, of that money.
The whole system stinks and cries out for a much-needed reform of the N.C.A.A. and its requirements for participating in Division I. Such reform should be No. 1 on the agenda, far ahead of the allocation of money from March Madness.
This is accurate: the argument of "when have 60,000 people shown up to see a chemistry exam?" is entirely beside the point. Athletic departments are self-contained businesses, really. That said, there are academic benefits to good athletics: almost all schools report a surge in admissions after successful seasons, and more admissions means that selection committees can be more selective and thus bring in better students. In any event, this deserves more in depth treatment, but I personally would be fine with paying players, as there are problems with the current model.
That said, I don't agree with agree with this rather naive view by professor William Dowling of Rutgers:
The various proposals for “reforming” college sports — by paying a stipend to the athletes who provide television profits, say, or diverting some of the money to academic purposes — show just how oblivious we’ve become to the damage commercialized Division IA athletics has done to American universities.
It’s not the money, it’s the silent triumph of consumerist ideology over academic and intellectual values in higher education.
The real issues have nothing to do with the millions generated by the N.C.A.A. tournament or holiday bowl games. They have to do with the silent triumph of consumerist ideology — in particular, a T.V.-revenue-driven behemoth with tremendous power to shape social consciousness — over academic and intellectual values in higher education.
You couldn’t ask for a better example than “March Madness,” the media spectacle that turns American universities into marketing vehicles for advertisers like Coca Cola and General Motors. For four weeks every spring, lower-level professional athletes wearing college jerseys are seen running back and forth on the television screen between the commercials.
Meanwhile, sportswriters and T.V. commentators maintain the solemn pretense that these are college students, young people who came to university to study Wittgenstein and learn medieval history and master the intricacies of R.N.A. replication. The N.C.A.A. grinds out public relations hype about “Academic All Americans” and “academic progress ratings.” And the public, as though mesmerized, never raises an eyebrow.
We shouldn’t be worrying about exploited athletes — few really are. Nor should we be worried about steering T.V. money to academics. Real colleges and universities — New York University, say, or Harvard, or the University of Chicago — have ways of paying academic costs without prostituting themselves to commercialized athletics. The solution is to end the prostitution itself.
Okay fine, I agree that it stretches credulity to contend that Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley (one and done freshman phenoms who went to the NBA after just a year in college) went to their schools to learn academics, especially during frantic March Madness time, where games take place in some far off city on Thursdays and Fridays (class?).
Yet notice Dowling's argument: to him, the athletes aren't exploited (despite being, at age 18, promised the potential of millions in professional sports but inevitably, with few exceptions, failing to get there while in many cases squandering the chance for a degree); nor the fans; but instead the University itself -- that holy place of learning -- that is corrupted by this "consumerist ideology" brought in by what he might describe as "the athletic element."
But this presupposes that Universities are powerless about this, yet most University presidents are academics, not former athletes. And while the "60,000 people don't come to see a chemistry exam" argument is bogus, boosters and sponsors do go to see football games and often donate to the University writ large.
Yet the whole argument just seems weird to me: it's not like anyone -- including announcers - really sits and gushes about Rose (or Michael Crabtree, Brian Orakpo, or even Tim Tebow) how amazing it is that they handle all these football duties on top of studying Wittgenstein. Instead, we all know it is a strange and precarious relationship that athletics has to academics. But strange does not equal corrupt.
Nor are plaintive invocations of the evils of "consumerist ideology" going to tell us anything: assuming this "ideology" is evil and it "triumphs," is it athletics that is the cause or a symptom? Finally, when did this utopia of the perfect and serene academic setting exist before athletics helped undermine it? I'm sure in Dowling's mind that, if not for athletics, Universities would look like Raphael's school of Athens, some kind of modern Lyceum. (And, no doubt, in this utopian academic setting it would be the professors and the brightest students exalte, rather than athletes and highly paid coaches.)
But this sharp dichotomy is false, and this utopia never existed. Is that reality optimal? I don't know. But even Plato, in his training regimen for his philosopher kings, recommended years of intense physical training beginning at the age of 18, and it was only out of those that excelled at athletics who ought to be then chosen to embark on ten years of math training, another five doing dialectics, and fifteen more managing the polis. (This emphasis on physical tools has long rankled the modern academic who sees sports and thinks only of barbarism.)
Yes, Universities are often put in an odd position serving the dual purposes as places of higher learning and something like minor league sports teams. And athletic departments often turn into little fiefdoms to few people's gain. But railing against the entire sports industry and our "consumerist ideology" strikes me as unproductive. I'm satisfied for now to just commend schools like Vanderbilt, who have consolidated their athletic departments into the rest of the school, and to hope other schools follow suit. Otherwise, it strikes me that people like Dowling would only be happy with eliminating college sports (save for a club cricket team or something) and replace it all with true professional minor leagues. I do not think it would have any positive effect on "society" in beating back the supposedly evil "consumerist ideology" that Dowling sees engulfing us. And I especially don't think it would return The University to some gilded age that exists only in Dowling's mind.