And yet, despite the swollen bank accounts associated with college athletics and the large crowds that flock to high-profile games, very few universities come out in the black from support of athletics by fans and boosters. True, universities are always looking for new sources of revenue, but intercollegiate athletics turn out not to be a profitable path. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, opined: “Only a handful of institutions have consistently earned a surplus from big-time intercollegiate athletics if the costs involved are fully accounted for.”
In addition to these monetary woes, strings of scandals have plagued schools both big and small in recent years, highlighting the broken higher-education experiences many student-athletes face. In 2016, Harvard announced it was canceling its men’s soccer season because of allegations that players had written sexually explicit “scouting reports,” which graded recruits of the women’s soccer team based on appearance. Not to be outdone, Columbia suspended its wrestling team for similar reasons. Princeton also suspended its men’s swimming and diving teams for “misogynistic and racist” materials created by team members, and Amherst did the same for its men’s cross-country team.
Outside the Ivy League, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is one of the most innovative universities in the nation, having created, for example, the first social-science research organization in the country. Yet it has admitted that for years it created fictional courses for student-athletes: Academic advisers and professors funneled athletes into those so-called “paper” classes. The courses didn’t actually exist, and athletes were given the “high grades” required to ensure their on-field eligibility. Though the school admitted to wrongdoing, the NCAA has not meted out any penalties for these violations. The case is still pending, despite several NCAA inquiries and details chronicled and published by a Chapel Hill professor and his colleague who worked on academic counseling at UNC-Chapel Hill. Perhaps North Carolina is just too valuable a source of television and other NCAA revenues for it “to fail”—that is, for it to be severely sanctioned and disciplined for its transgression of ethics and NCAA rules.
Further diluting the mirage that student-athletes actually receive a quality education is the “one-and-done” principle that college basketball leverages during recruitment. The best young players—who are not designated as “international” by the league’s standards—are eligible for the National Basketball Association during the calendar year they turn 19, provided they are at least a year out of high school.
Most large Division I universities offer athletic scholarships to most of the members of their sports teams; there are relatively few “walk on” players who were never recruited and make the teams. Most universities offer athletic scholarships only to a small percentage of those in the entering class—Arizona State University, for example, gives athletic scholarships to just over 1 percent of a given class of 12,000 first-time freshmen, according to Mike Crow, the school’s president. However, ironically, many of the most selective colleges and universities in the nation, including the Ivies and the elite colleges like Amherst and Williams, have more intercollegiate teams than the Division I powerhouses and typically allocate a sizable percentage of their precious spots to recruited athletes whose SAT scores—at least in the high-profile sports of football, basketball, and hockey—are often lower than the mean of the class.