The Perverse Consequences of the NCAA Ruling

The high court’s decision was overdue. It will also usher in a new world.

A golden basketball on a pedestal
photoart23D / Getty; Steve Cicero / Getty; Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Supreme Court has changed college admissions forever. The justices’ decision late last month allowing NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball programs to provide new educational incentives to student athletes created an overdue avenue for compensating student athletes in commercially lucrative sports, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds. And new rules the NCAA rolled out last week in response to a series of state laws allow student athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness without violating college sports’ amateurism rules. So far, the changes have been celebrated as a step toward greater equity. They may well have that effect at some schools, and for some students.

But the high court’s ruling is also likely to produce a perverse set of consequences, setting off a race among universities to shower wealthy and privileged students with an array of new benefits, and widening the chasm of inequality.

Though the decision itself is relatively narrow, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurrence practically invited other legal challenges to the NCAA’s amateurism policies. Many other programs will likely seek the right to offer new financial incentives to recruit and retain student athletes. That’s what likely awaits: a world in which colleges compete to offer ever more incentives to even the wealthiest student athletes, who are essential to their enrollment goals, their competitiveness, their alumni pride, and their fundraising.

If colleges are now tempted to add new incentives to attract student athletes, what trade-offs will they have to make, and where will those resources come from?

Resources at most colleges and universities are stretched. The pandemic decreased enrollment, tuition discounting is at an all-time high, and the steepening decline in the number of high-school graduates in America is making it challenging for colleges to meet revenue goals. Some people assume that colleges and universities will cut sports such as lacrosse and squash, which are less obviously lucrative than basketball and football, rather than subsidize the athletes who play them. But that assumption misunderstands the key role that these “non-revenue” sports play in colleges’ finances. Schools from Division I to Division III face pressure to spend ever more on training and competition facilities, coaches and assistant coaches, travel budgets, and equipment. This is in part because colleges and universities use sports programs to recruit and retain students. For example, schools across NCAA divisions continue to add programs such as lacrosse and squash, even as many institutional budgets are squeezed. From 2003 to 2018, the number of college and university women’s lacrosse teams nearly doubled, and the number of men’s programs increased by 61 percent. Meanwhile, since 2007, the number of club and varsity squash teams in the U.S. has increased by more than 25 percent—and most of the top-ranked colleges in America now have squash courts. Part of the reason schools are adding these sports is that they tend to attract students from wealthier families—families more likely to be able to pay the full cost of enrollment. The median annual income of squash players and fans is more than $300,000, according to a 2014 report from U.S. Squash.

Schools are also well aware that many alumni take great pride in their alma mater’s sports program, and that participation in sports deepens many students’ allegiance to their school—and ultimately their likelihood to be a donor. It should therefore be no surprise that elite DIII athletics conferences, such as the New England Small College Athletic Conference, whose members include Amherst, Bowdoin, and Williams, offer so many sports programs that typically more than 30 percent of each school’s entire student enrollment is part of varsity teams.

For members of major athletics conferences—such as the SEC and the ACC—whose football and men’s basketball programs were in essence the subject of the Court’s decision, costs for new student-athlete incentives will likely get passed on to the private sector via television and other sponsorship contracts. The five largest football conferences (known as the Power 5) collectively generate more than $4 billion in annual football revenue. Likewise, schools with large endowments or lucrative fundraising operations would appear to have reliable means for covering the additional costs. But such schools are a single-digit percentage of the NCAA’s more than 1,100 member institutions, and educate a relatively small percentage of the poorest students. The risk is that institutions with small endowments and money-losing athletics programs may divert resources from financial aid and student services, especially because athletic programs have become so intrinsic to admissions and fundraising.

Resources at most schools are not only finite but also precariously balanced among core costs such as academic investments, financial aid, personnel, facilities—and athletics. An athletics arms race would, in all likelihood, jeopardize resources currently designated for other student support. Millions of students outside revenue-generating sports programs, including low-income, first-generation students, could be left with a dwindling portion of already insufficient financial aid.

This seismic shift in college athletics is taking place at a time when it’s harder than ever for poor students to afford college. The costs associated with recruiting future student athletes could undermine efforts to recruit and retain low-income students. As it is, nearly three in four college students in the United States have less money than they need to pay for college. Institutions at all levels must now confront the necessity to establish strong, clear guardrails of policy and finance around their educational mission—that is, around the learning that happens between faculty and students—and around the financial-aid investments that open college doors to every qualified student.

Student athletes give extraordinary time and effort to train and compete, and learn the value of teamwork, perseverance, strategy, and leadership. Yet this part of college life brings a high cost to academic institutions, and only a very few profit from it. It was long past time for the legal victory that student athletes have won. It is also long past time that schools commit to investing the same energy into developing, supporting, and celebrating students’ pursuit of education as they do into celebrating those who compete athletically. Above all, as the world of college-athletics funding changes, institutions should reaffirm the centrality of their academic mission and make the investments required to ensure that a college education is possible for all who seek one.