Friday, April 10, 2009

Big time ballin'

Eric Zorn asks, in light of the news that the Illinois Institute of Technology is dropping varsity basketball, "Why does any college or university give scholarship money to athletes in non-revenue producing sports?" He goes on to write:
In fact, with any non-revenue sport, you can make the case that non-athletes at a college or university end up helping to pay the freight for the athletes. What's the justification for this, given the core mission of higher education?
These are good questions, but I wouldn't limit the discussion to non-revenue sports. Someone may be able to make a case that the revenues from some sports (basically, men's basketball and football) are a positive for the college, but they seem only to contribute to a gigantism of those programs (as we see with new Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who's going to get almost $4 million a year).

There are some interesting comments within the post, some reinforcing the Zorn opinion, others refuting it, like this one:
As a non-athlete, I disagree with the premise of EZ's argument. If athletic scholarships should only be given in revenue-producing sports, does that mean only basketball and football players (and baseball at a few schools) should benefit? This kind of thinking would screw women athletes especially. And while football and basketball programs make the money, colleges accrue a great deal of cachet competing in things like volleyball, rowing, soccer, swimming, wrestling and track.
Zorn responds:
Really? Colleges accrue "cachet" competing in volleyball etc? First, says who? And second, so what? What's the bottom-line value of having a volleyball or rowing team? How does it serve the core mission of the institution?

Does it attract a higher-caliber of student? More enrollments? Greater giving by alumni? Anything else that might attach to a school's bottom line?

Wouldn't have even tried expressing it better, but I couldn't entirely resist jumping in on the thread:
I would question the granting of money to so-called revenue-producing sports. That gets us into a difficult calculus where we try to decide which students bring in money and which do not (the perfect SAT kid beefs up the stats and attracts more top students, at least theoretically - what's the value of that?).

As for private universities, perhaps they "should receive no public funding," but they certainly do through grants and tax breaks. They have forfeited the right to do whatever they want.

Zorn goes on (and isn't it good to see a popular blogger who engages in some back-and-forth?):
Student achievement is part of the core mission of a college or university. I don't see how having a talented swimmer or juggler or foosball player or hacky-sacker or whatever necessarily advances that core mission.

Is it the building of "school community"? most sports have more participants than spectators, so money spent in that area should go not to scholarships, coaching salarie or travel, but to intramurals.

Nothing said so far persuades me that this is anything other than tradition run totally wild to the detriment of the institutions.

Who calculates what does and doesn't pay off? Why not let the schools make that calculation? If they can justify having fencing teams and golf teams and so on even in a tangential bottom-line, core mission way (that explains why it's better to invest resources there than in, say, science labs, library books, academic scholarships and so on), I'd like to hear it.

I think Zorn is dead on (except for his exclusion of revenue-producing sports; we should still ask if they serve the core missions of the institution). I've never really understood why every college, whatever the size, is compelled to offer an expensive football team. I know the arguments, in particular that it revs up the alums and their checkbooks, but I'd have a lot of respect for an institution that came out and said, "We take pride in our science and math and English graduates, we don't need to offer up five or six expensive shows every year heedless of cost."

I am a big sports fan, but that doesn't mean I can turn a blind eye to the disparity between what ought to be the objectives of an institution of higher learning and the actual practices. One hears about college presidents spending major amounts of time on NCAA investigations and "problems" with athletes, and it raises the question of how time should be allocated.

Of course, this is not a problem confined to tertiary education. Our high schools suffer from the same kind of misemphasis; even in these difficult times, no one ever seriously considers dropping or cutting back on football (at least in my area of the world), even as teachers are let go.

I know that there are benefits to team sports, at least for the relatively few who get to experience them. But it is not unfair to insist that we look at the benefits and the costs, and make these programs fit into a spectrum of activities that represent the actual purpose of what are, after all, educational institutions.

1 comment:

Eric Easterberg said...

For anyone who likes this blog (I'm a lurker, not a commenter), I've started a Facebook group, Fans of Androcass. Check it out if you'd like:

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