You may have heard something last week about a new report from the Delta Cost Project, in the United States. Typically, I’m a big fan of the Delta Cost Project, but I think this particular study misses the point.
The main line of argumentation against college sports in the US is that only a few big schools actually make money on athletics; on the whole, schools lose money, which could otherwise be spent on academics. While true, this point could also be made of other institutional activities, as well. Tech transfer, for instance: it’s pretty clear that schools spend a lot more money on patenting activities than they get back in licensing fees, but everybody does it because you never know if that next patent is going to be the “home run” that makes everything worthwhile.
More to the point, schools that “lose” money aren’t really losing it. As Charles Clotfelter points out in his recent book, schools still get mileage out of that money, because big-time college sports is really about advertising and community relations, and it always has been (historical oddity: part of the quid pro quo for expansion of public higher education in the US south and west was that the institutions “give something back” to the community, in the form of entertainment).
I’m quite sure, for instance, that Alabama gets better treatment in the state legislature now than it did before the Tide began its current run of football dominance. The Flutie Effect that winning sports teams have on college applications is well known. Aren’t those examples of money well spent? Detractors may point out that only a few institutions can ever hope to win big like that; but, yet again, you could make the same argument about tech transfer.
Surely, the more persuasive argument against American college sports centres not around money, but around ethics. As Taylor Branch pointed out in The Atlantic, last year, the system exploits students – mainly African-American men – for the financial benefit of the NCAA and television companies. Instead – as Tom Wolfe so brilliantly exposes in I Am Charlotte Simmons – student athletes are compensated by an on-campus star-system, which not only excuses them from the academic rigours of a campus, but which also, and all too often, condones outright barbarity and violence. And the whole college sports industry colludes in this; the fact that Notre Dame gets more press for Manti T’eo’s fake imaginary girlfriend than for the very real sexual assault/suicide scandal, involving at least two of its Football players, may not be surprising… but it is disgusting.
The lost money isn’t really a big deal. But the loss of ethics at an institution, the loss of its soul, that’s unforgivable.