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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Should college athletes be paid?

The New York Times had a recent roundtable on the topic. A few interesting points worth highlighting and responding to. Mostly professors chime in, and the specific topic is March Madness, but the debate highlights the tension between old University ideals and the realities of college athletics.

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.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I love the references to Raphael (and a rare reference to the artist rather than the ninja turtle!) and especially love the use of Plato's Republic in response to the "ivory tower" perspective. I've passed this on to my one philosophy buddy and had a good laugh myself. Keep up the great writing - it's always a pleasure to read your stuff.

Unknown said...

I agree in an odd way with most of what's in the article, but I feel Dowlings was dealt with unfairly...see Florida St. for corruption & I dare say that's not exactaly rare. Somewhere in this discussion needs to be the responsibility of the "students" or whoever is telling them they're about to be's a false promise. That being said, universities already pay students for on campus jobs & the hours that most college athlets put in amount to a full-time job, so why not pay a living (regulated) wage?

brad said...

So is it that the players are being exploited because the schools are making a ton of money or is it that big time athletics are worthless cause on average they lose money?

The truth is probably that Football and Basketball make a ton of money at most BCS level schools and that money is spent on minor sports that are big money losers.

If we should pay for kids to play basketball and football should kids on the (Wrestling, Softball, Track, Soccer, Swimming teams have to pay thier own way?) At the end of the day it is Football and Basketball that make all the money with Girls Basketball and Baseball probably covering their expenses and all others losing money.

mingfrommongo said...

Notre Dame, for example, has parlayed the idea of a strict physical regimen for its student body in its early years into a rather large endowment for the University. The academics of that institution has benefited incredibly by the athletic endeavors of those that chose to participate in interscholastic sports. Other schools have been able to use their accomplishments on the field or court to accomplish similar results. The athletic success of many academic institutions is directly proportional to the increase in their endowment. I would encourage many of these academicians not to bite the hand that is feeding them.

Phil said...

1. They are getting paid by the scholarship, ask most work study students if they would rather get the 8 bucks an hour they get or have their entire tuition waived, I'm guessing most would go with the latter, why a few (mostly basketball players and maybe a few football players at the 20 or so schools that always sell out 80,000+ stadiums) legitimately bring in more revenue than the scholarship is worth, most do not

2. The guy from Rugters is rediculous, Universities need to be more comercial not less, the number of college graduates with English and Philosophy majors that they paid $20,000+ a year for is one of the biggest scams going in this country, and guys like him are responsible for it, you think China and India waste their best minds studying that crap?

He needs to worry about that, not Coke trying to make sports less of a sink hole than they already are

Anonymous said...

1. All major research universities have prostituted themselves in pursuit of grant funding for science. The critics' pretense of university purity in pursuit of knowledge is enough to make one puke.

2. The idea that athletic departments "lose" money on big time sports is stupid. They lose money because they subsidize all the other sports.

3. Big time sports are critically important to a lot of donors who provide substantial academic funding to the university. [Anyone interested in entertaining reading should read some of the convoluted studies some academics have proffered to refute that. They'll make you laugh, but the quality of thought is so poor it will boggle your mind.]

4. The above two points demonstrate that the critics focus on faulty accounting rather than an understanding of the real underlying economics. One would expect better of academics, except the track record for academics thinking clearly is pretty dismal.


sharko said...

i believe william dowling to be 100% correct in his theory

Anonymous said...

yo word

Anonymous said...

1. Maybe the studies that show that sports don't increase donations are convoluted. Show me the studies that show that sports do increase donations. If you can't then you're just asserting that sports increase donations without know what you're talking about. I think the med school, the law school, and the business college are a better bet.

2. Yes, the football program generates more revenue than the gymnastics team. But if you want to do business with the NCAA and the BCS, you have to have all the non-revenue sports. It's not optional. So the non-revenue sports are part of the athletic department's cost of doing business. (That's Sperber's point.)

3. Notice that Plato didn't suggest that some young men do vigourous physical training until they go on to do more physical training in the pros, while other young men study. For one thing, Plato's model of education was for a state in which all property was held in common, so there were no pros. Every non-slave male was supposed to do everything, which is exactly what contemporary universities fail at.

4. Dowling nowhere asserts that there was a utopia on campus prior to the current situation. What he asserts is that the balance of power between athletic departments and the rest of the university has shifted, and that academics have lost ground as a result. How many cheating scandals would it take to convince you that he has a point? And that's not taking into account the fact that athletes aren't selected by the admissions department in the same way as other students, or that, at many schools they are explicitly steered away from demanding academic schedules.

5. Finally, it is a fact that most schools take money from the general fund and put it into the athletic department. In other words, the students who pay tuition, the donors who donate and the taxpayers who subsidize the schools pay for college athletics. I think we're allowed to resent that at times, and wonder if it couldn't be done less corruptly.

6. All that said, go blue.