By Richard Vedder
As we enter the wilderness period between the college bowl games in football and basketball's March Madness, perhaps it is time to reflect on the state of intercollegiate athletics. Let's face it: it is a disgrace, an embarrassment to higher education, a scandal.
As usual, a historical perspective is useful. Let us compare today's college sports with, say, how they existed at the middle of the 20th century, in 1950. In 1950, a typical football player at a major college campus played nine games a year for three years --27 games total. Today's counterpart plays perhaps on average 13 games a year for four years -52 games. In baseball, the season has expanded even more, and teams often play 60-70 games, double the norm of two generations ago.
In 1950, athletes were truly students, playing two to three sports while attending classes. Long spring practices in football, accompanied by summer camps, along with living in a segregated environment far away from the academic center of campus -- today's norm --was unknown. Coaches of repute, such as Ohio State's Woody Hayes, made about the same as a moderately senior college professor, and far less than the president (of either the university or the United States). There was no "redshirting" --keeping so-called students around for five years or more in order to maximize the quantity and quality of their athletic prowess. The notion that football players would take off two to three weeks of classes in order to prepare for a bowl game was not even considered. Having a sporting event scheduled during examination periods was absolutely taboo. To be sure, athletics even in those days were "big men on campus", and the prestigious schools of the era took in some "dumb jocks" in order to improve athletic competitiveness. But the abuses were far less than they are today. Yet people enjoyed the athletic competition with the same fervor as today, and tens of thousands of persons filled stadiums on Saturday afternoons. If sports success induces alumni giving now, it did back then as well.
Today, at the big name schools, the colleges are really running minor league professional teams, but, unlike pro deems, they exploit the athletes by not paying them, trying to keep the fiction going that they are truly educating the "student-athletes" in order to justify paying them somewhat less than 10 or 20 percent what they would have earned if they truly were playing with a minor league professional team. To be sure, that is not true, at least to the same extent, in the so-called minor sports, or with women athletics, which were of secondary importance 50-60 years ago. Nor is it as true at non-Division I schools. And even at the top jock schools, there are occasional football and basketball players who are true scholars, who go on to graduate school or become doctors or lawyers. But they are becoming the exception at many schools rather than the rule. Dropout rates, particularly among minorities at top flight sports schools, are alarmingly high.
What about the smaller colleges, say the private liberal arts schools? Even there, the fixation on sports today is much greater than decades ago. Schools try to recruit swimmers, baseball players, basketball players, etc. just as the bigger schools do, and a larger portion of students are athletic participants than at say Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, or Penn State. But sports remain somewhat lower key, the athletes mingle with the non-jocks much more, and studying is still more of a priority.
At the major schools, sports have corrupted institutions. Academics are often subordinated to athletics. University presidents kowtow to alums whose pocketbooks exceed their intelligence and sense of proportion. An immoral and shameful exploitation of "students" occurs as the Sports Cartel, better known as the NCAA, works to assure that the financial gains of sports accrue to the universities and the adults running athletic operations, not to the children verging on adults who are providing the entertainment.
It is a scandal. The notion that athletics promote scholarly greatness is pure bull, by and large. To be sure, there are a few schools, Notre Dame most notably, that have probably used sports to attain an element of academic prestige. But most of the greatest universities in the country --Harvard, Princeton, M.I.T., Cal Tech, Chicago-- have indifferent or mediocre sports teams by today's standards. The correlation between athletic and academic success is modest indeed. And without question, the notion that universities are non-profit institutions motivated by the love of learning to serve our society is severely compromised by intercollegiate athletics as it operates in contemporary American society.