are college sports corrupt?

Big-time college sports are corrupt–not only in the sense that leading programs often break the official rules, but also because institutions that follow the rules may corrupt their characters as universities.

So I would propose, but I am not fully satisfied with the argument. It may depend on the premise that playing quasi-professional sports before large audiences isn’t an appropriate activity at a public or not-for-profit university (in contrast to teaching, scholarship, R&D, policy analysis, ethical leadership, clinical health care, public dialogue, performance and studio arts, archives and collections, and economic development, which are worthy functions). Since playing basketball or football at the Division I level is an impressive achievement, and since the other activities of a modern university are rather miscellaneous, I fear that this premise may hinge on a subjective value-judgment.

Some signs that big-time sports are corrupt: Winning coaches have such strong market positions that they cannot be disciplined by academic administrators. The average football program on the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) list generates $11 million in net assets for its university per year.*  Salaries for even offensive and defensive football coordinators exceed $1 million. Athletes are not paid, but they lose their scholarships if they cease to play. Sometimes a significant proportion of the low-income students of color on a campus must play sports on TV to stay enrolled. Graduation rates are poor. Young athletes are enmeshed in elaborate rules regarding recruitment and money, yet they seem immune to general rules regarding academic performance.

But these points do not demonstrate corruption, at least not one by one. (Maybe they accumulate to an indictment.) After all …

Other individuals on some campuses are too valuable to be disciplined, starting with high-wattage professors. The late Mancur Olson, one of the founders of rational-choice theory, negotiated a contract with the University of Maryland that guaranteed him $1 more than any other professor in the state’s system, to save him the trouble of seeking competing offers. As far as I know, he acted with perfect integrity, but (like the basketball coach) he was “too big to fail.”

Other parts of universities also make profits. Research, in particular, can pay very nicely because of patents. Stanford’s net return from patents was $62 million in 2006, about twice the total surplus generated by Penn State’s athletic department.

In addition to athletes, other students are required to perform services to their universities. The federal government, for example, subsidizes nursing scholarships for students who serve as nurses in selected (needy) facilities. I think nursing is much more valuable than football, but football may be more attractive for participants. It’s not clear that the athletes are more exploited than the nurses–to say nothing of the university’s blue-collar workforce.

The graduation rates for big-time sports programs don’t always look bad in the context of higher education in general. For example, 87% of Penn State’s football players graduate within 6 years, two percentage points better than the student body as a whole.

For the most part, these are tu quoque arguments: in other words, “Don’t criticize Division I sports, because the same problems are seen elsewhere in higher education.” Put in those terms, it’s an illegitimate argument–why not expand the critique to encompass other parts of the university? But note that the critique then becomes very broad, and it’s not clear that what’s left (pure teaching and scholarship) is sustainable outside the elite universities.

In other words, big-time sports do not adulterate a pure substance; they are part of a complicated mix. So we may have to decide whether the intrinsic merits of Division I football and basketball are worthy of support by universities. I would say no, but is that just because I am no longer much of a sports fan?

*Matheson, V.A., O’Connor, D.J., and Herberger, J.H., “The Bottom Line: Accounting for Revenues and Expenditures in Intercollegiate Athletics” (PDF).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.