By Richard Vedder, Matthew Denhart and Robert Villwock
The naming of Myron Rolle and Chris Joseph as Rhodes Scholars shows that players on big-time college football teams can excel both athletically and academically. Rolle currently plays at Florida State, and Joseph graduated from UCLA. Congratulations to these fine men for an extraordinary achievement. Athletic competition can promote excellence and leadership, and this is a fine example of that.
But there is a dark side to intercollegiate athletics. Consider the following statistic, derived from Dan Fulks' statistics for the NCAA in 2006. For every one dollar spent on student scholarship assistance, $1.95 was spent on salaries and benefits for coaches, athletic administrators and support staff. If an NFL or NBA team spent 1.95 times as much on coaches salaries, the general manager's compensation, and that of other employees as they did on the players, it would not be around for very long.
Top college athletes are typically paid vastly less than the value of their marginal product --what they add to the revenue stream of athletic departments (this is true only at the top football/basketball schools to be sure). They do it because it is required by professional leagues, provides training for pro play later, or, in some cases, because the students genuinely crave a college degree, which they think they will need after their athletic career is over. And most of them have no realistic professional athletic prospects. Money that in a competitive market would go to the players goes for other things --but largely the salaries of coaches. Adults are exploiting children, albeit older children and sometimes even young adults. The better athletes leave early to go to the pros --$1 million a year in pay beats, say, $15,000 (or whatever the value of the grant-in-aid).
But what concerns us also are the negative spillover effects of downplaying academics for the sake of athletics. Colleges take in students who do not belong, who are good athletes but poor students. Is that right and appropriate? Then they give them a schedule of activities (games, practice, conditioning) that makes studying all but impossible, with games scheduled in examination weeks, practices during class hours, etc. So exploit them financially and set them up to fail academically, meanwhile sending a message to everyone "academics is fairly important, but sports trump everything." A bad message to send.
To be sure, we are speaking here of the Gang of 119 --the big NCAA football powers --not the average liberal arts college or even the smaller state schools. We are not talking about either the Ivy League or community colleges. And we are the first to argue --as we did at the beginning of this blog --that we love sports, we enjoy watching games ourselves, and that there are some real benefits of athletics in terms of developing leadership and character. But all things need to be done in moderation, and we are beyond moderation in intercollegiate athletics.
Richard Vedder directs CCAP and teaches at Ohio University, where both Matthew Denhart and Robert Villwock are undergraduate students and CCAP research associates.