Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Trustees and Intercollegiate Athletics

By: Matthew Denhart

An article in my school’s student newspaper, The Post, demonstrates all that is wrong with the view university trustees too often take concerning intercollegiate athletics. In a presentation before the board of trustees where the athletic director made a plea for more funding, one of our esteemed trustees made this statement: “I can’t imagine a major university without athletics,” and wondered, “What is our plan to go after some of those major athletes, or are we going to be in a constant budget debate?”

The absurdity of her statement is astounding when even an ounce of economic reasoning is applied. The first part of her statement implies that the benefits of intercollegiate athletics so greatly outweigh the costs that it would be unfathomable to even consider the university without it. Such an idea is frightening if one believes that the objective of any university should first and foremost be the education of students.

In our study released last spring, CCAP offered an alternative view of intercollegiate athletics. This view acknowledges that both benefits and costs exist from athletics and concludes that on average too much emphasis is placed on athletics. Just as groups such as the Knight Commission and Drake Group have argued, we believe that there is currently an athletics arms race under way. Although virtually all athletic departments lose buckets of money every year, they continually spend more in hopes of gaining a competitive edge over others. This results in a circular pattern that devotes more and more resources to sports. This has escalated to a point whereas today a majority of FBS football coaches earn more than their university’s president.

The comments such as those put forward by my institution’s trustee are depressing. Not only does she refuse to consider both the benefits and costs (including the opportunity cost of funds), she further encourages the arms race by suggesting that we end budget debates regarding athletics in order to have the means to “go after some of those major athletes.” (Last March in the Wall Street Journal Professor Vedder and I pointed out that often those “major athletes” are greatly exploited at the hands of the NCAA labor cartel).

Trustees have the ultimate power to reverse these backwards priorities. My university, like others across the country, is struggling severely to balance its budget and academic programs are taking serious hits. Yet, athletics receives unconditional support. In its 2009 Statement on Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics, the Association of Governing Boards points out that athletics have reached a point where in many cases they “may be detracting from the institution’s mission,” and that there is, “a widening gulf between the athletic and academic cultures at some institutions.” Sadly they seem to have it right.

Now more than ever we need trustees with the capacity to consider critically the appropriate role of athletics within the American university. Judging from the comments of at least one trustee, it doesn’t appear my school will be taking the lead.

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