Eliminate or drastically reform intercollegiate athletic participation, including removing athletic department autonomy and ending large institutional subsidies
By: Matthew Denhart
Unique to American higher education, intercollegiate athletics have become a wildly popular form of entertainment. March Madness and college football’s BCS bowls generate millions of dollars worth of revenue every year. Yet there are costs associated with all this hoopla, and in many cases they are quite significant. The latest data from the NCAA indicate that only around 16 programs in the country have self-sustaining athletic departments. The hundreds of remaining programs rely upon wider institutional resources for their continued survival.
In 2006 the median institutional subsidy provided to athletics was almost $9 million at Division 1-A schools. More alarming is the rapid growth in this area. Between 2004 and 2006, allocated revenue grew 57 percent; whereas by 2006, allocated revenue accounted for more than a quarter of total athletic department revenues. Students are not only adversely affected by this through the opportunity cost of the university’s funds going to athletics, but also through a sizeable portion of student fees being directed to intercollegiate athletics. With sports losing more money than ever it is clear that serious reform is needed.
Entirely eliminating school-sponsored intercollegiate athletics would save money for virtually every school in the country. Beyond a cost issue, many argue that in addition to exploiting athletes, intercollegiate athletics subtract from the academic mission of the academy. Simply ridding higher education of athletics altogether would remedy the situation.
Yet given the wild popularity of college sports this is probably not very realistic, and is not entirely desirable either. Athletics do provide a number of positive benefits to both participants and society as a whole. Nevertheless the costs are tough to justify. There are a number of sensible reforms that could maintain athletics while realigning it with academic priorities and reducing costs.
One innovative approach implemented at Vanderbilt University by then-chancellor Gordon Gee was to eliminate athletic department autonomy by placing it under the student affairs wing of the university. In this scheme intercollegiate athletics falls under the Office of Student Athletics, Recreation and Wellness along with intramural and community sports programs. The athletic director position no longer exists but rather an assistant vice chancellor runs the day-to-day operations of the office. This makes athletics more responsive to the university and demands the same transparency required of other university departments. In addition, Vanderbilt has reported increased efficiency and savings associated with combining duplicate costs.
A number of less dramatic reforms could help save money as well. Leasing facilities when not in use is one way to generate new revenues. Travel costs could be reduced by realigning athletic conferences to be more regional in nature, shortening season lengths, substituting driving for flying when travel distances are only moderate, and banning long-distance travel to things such as preseason tournaments hosted in hard to reach locales. Reducing the number of available football scholarships would cut costs. Currently, schools are allowed 85 scholarship athletes in football even though there are less than 25 positions on a team. Better contracts that discourage the high mobility of coaches would help slow the growth of escalating coaches’ salaries.
College sports are in need of desperate reform. University presidents and boards of trustees need to reassert their responsibilities of oversight to better determine institutional priorities and reign in out-of-control spending by the athletics departments. Vanderbilt has offered one interesting model for reform but others have not followed suit. Something dramatic is needed for intercollegiate athletics. On its current path, with growing budget deficits and an increased reliance on dwindling institutional funds, it is bound to collapse under its own weight.