Athletics is a huge business in the world, and no place is it more a part of life than the United States. We have major professional sports leagues in football, baseball, basketball, hockey and a growing interest in soccer. What began as friendly competition among universities in these sports has become a huge industry, a major line of business for schools.
I would like to see our universities focus on what should be their core competence: education, research and leadership on the important issues facing the world. Unfortunately, alumni seem to measure the value of their schools by how their sports teams perform. It has been reported that the quality and quantity of undergraduate applicants is correlated with the success of sports teams, though I have not seen the data. I did have a colleague from a college that once went to a football bowl game say that the school has never reached the level of alumni contributions it received that year again.
A quick look at the NCAA web site shows the distressing graduation rates for college athletes, especially basketball players. No, they don’t all go on to the NBA. A large number of schools are recruiting players for their teams who have little interest in a college education. And the schools have little interest in them after they have used up their eligibility for their sport.
Common wisdom is that universities make a great deal of money from football and basketball, and that these sports pay for the rest of the athletic program, and maybe even subsidize academics. A New York Times 10/3/2010) article about the University of Florida states that only 14 of the 120 largest football schools made money in 2008-9. Schools in the big leagues of football increased their spending by 11% that year, and overall universities increased their contributions to athletics by 28% even as the economy went into free fall.
Schools have booster clubs and fan clubs that raise money for athletics so that it does not appear that the University is paying for them. At the University of Florida the athletic budget went up $5.6 million to almost $95 million while the university laid off 139 faculty and staff members from 2007 to 2010 in response to a $150 million reduction in state funding. The department has the use of three airplanes. The University of Florida athletic director makes $1.2 million a year, the basketball coach $4.5 million, the volleyball coach $365,000 and the softball coach $253,000 including benefits. And people are criticizing the salaries of college presidents, a few of which have hit $1 million a year for managing organizations with budgets over $1 billion?
To be fair, the article states that athletics have contributed more than $55 million to academics since 1990 at Florida. But that is not the point. The University could start other businesses to try and make money, say a consulting company using its faculty. However, that is not the core business of a University. Noncore activities distract the institution from its mission, and when it comes to this kind of emphasis on athletics, sends exactly the wrong message to everyone involved with the school.
Are we telling the inner city child that it makes the most sense to work on his basketball skills rather than his studies to get into college? Are we telling our students and faculty that the job of the football and basketball coaches is so important than it pays a multiple of what the college president earns? How can a school say it values academics and pay the softball coach more than most full professors?
Let’s get athletics back where they belong-as a student extracurricular activity. Stop hiring athletes to represent the school. Eliminate athletic scholarships and limit coaches salaries to 75% of the average salary of full professors in the university and maybe things will get back into perspective.
Or, if sports are so ingrained in the University, then make them a real subsidiary. License the name of the University and let the NFL and NBA operate the teams as farm clubs. Baseball has to run its minor leagues, why not football and basketball? Then we could really run these as a business and not bother the employees (athletes) having to go to class. The school can sell branded merchandise and earn a franchise fee for the use of its name. And the university can focus all of its energies on its core mission of education, research and leadership.