The Real Crisis in College Sports: It's Wasted Money, Not Wasted Students

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Critics of college sports should stop focusing on winning teams that pay their own way. Instead, they should talk about the programs that burn through cash. 

615_Ohio_State_Football.jpgReuters

When critics talk about the problems surrounding America's college sports culture, they tend to talk about the powerhouses. They take aim at the teams that dominate not only their campuses, but also the news cycle on ESPN. Duke basketball. Ohio State football. The largest, richest, and most powerful programs in the NCAA.

Take the recent New York Times piece, "How Big Time Sports Ate College Life." The authors argue that, at many U.S. universities, the fervor for tail-gating, face-painting, and general sports nuttiness is eclipsing the schools' academic missions. Athletic department budgets are soaring. Classes are being canceled so students can watch games on television. At Ohio State, incoming Buckeye football coach Urban Meyer gets use of a private jet, while a poor, beleaguered physics professor doesn't have enough room in his budget to attend science conferences. At Duke, the student fans camp out en-masse outside the basketball stadium before Blue Devil home games, missing classes and braving the elements for the chance at a better seat.

All of this may well be true. And to some degree, the concern is merited. Thanks to the abuse scandal at Penn State, we all have a vivid example of the sinister impact a powerful sports program can have on a university. But I'd like to offer a proposition: When we talk about the pitfalls of college athletics, perhaps we should spend a bit less time focusing on the winners -- those Blue Devils and Buckeyes -- and pay more more attention to the losers.

The financial losers, that is. As I've written before, the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, home to the top teams in football and basketball, is largely divided between haves and have-nots, programs that make money, and programs that hemorrhage it. To talk about them both under the banner of "big time" athletics unproductively twists the conversation by driving it towards the intangible issues of campus culture. Instead of harping on the successful programs that make a profit most years, we should start by talking about the schools that are spending millions to subsidize sports, instead of devoting those resources to educating students.

According to a report by the NCAA, only 22 FBS athletic departments earned a profit in 2010 (the report does not identify schools by name). But that is largely because revenue from men's football and basketball is used to cover other, less profitable sports. Among the 69 teams that earned money on football, their median net revenue was more than $9.1 million. For the 67 that earned a return on basketball, the median net was $3.6 million. The most profitable athletic department in the country earned a cool $41.8 million after expenses.

Those are the haves. Some of those programs may command eye-popping budgets, but they make up for it by paying for, say, men's swimming, or women's lacrosse, or a library renovation. The fact that Urban Meyer gets a private plane might sound like a lurid excess. But, considering his program earns tens of millions of dollars for Ohio State each year, it's also largely irrelevant to the school's bottom line.

But what about the effect on academics? As the Times notes, a recent study at the University of Oregon found that men's grades dropped when the school's football team had a winning season. But that's just one (as-of-yet unpublished) study. There is also evidence that a successful college sports team can help boost graduation rates by fostering a stronger campus community and that winning on the field might increase the number and quality of applications a school receives from high school students. In the end, we simply need more data. We don't know for sure what the effect of sport's on a school's core educational mission is.

Assume all of those findings are true, though. Ask yourself: If you were Ohio State's president, would you take millions of extra dollars, more applications, and maybe a better graduation rate in return for lower GPAs? Considering that we live in an age of shrinking state budgets, I bet you would. 

When it comes to the have-nots, the calculus changes. According to the NCAA, one university lost $10.5 million on its football program in 2010. That's two-and-a-half times Urban Meyer's full salary. A total of 51 football programs were in the red, with a median loss of $2.8 million. The 53 money-losing basketball programs cost their schools a median of $975,000.

These schools are the real financial crisis in college sports. They're taking resources from academics to pay for football, and the taxpayer is often getting stuck with the bill. Perhaps when you factor in the benefits to school spirit, donations from alums, and the like the benefits outweigh the costs. But it seems doubtful. 

Yet, we're not talking about those schools. Instead, publications like the Times latch onto the teams we watch on TV come bowl season or March Madness. They point at Duke's Cameron Crazies and shake their heads over today's kids, or get worked up over the payscales for a coach like Meyer. Maybe it's because the public is more likely to read something about Ohio State than Ball State. Maybe it's because a student who skips 18th Century English Lit. to paint his face blue and white and drink beer is an obvious symbol of sports winning out over academics. But that doesn't make the discussion productive. 

There are bigger things in this world to worry about than a sports program that pays for itself and hasn't obviously run out of control, a la Penn State. But when schools are skimping on academics to pay for sports, it becomes public policy issue -- one that's a lot more important than some overzealous fans. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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