Anticipating her March inauguration as president of the University of North Carolina system, Margaret Spellings is already tossing passes to her teammates. During the coming weeks, she has announced, an anonymous donor will pay the Boston Consulting Group $1.1 million for a preliminary assessment of the 17-campus network. The goal? To ensure she’ll have the best people “to play NFL ball.”
It’s a strange time and place for football metaphors. UNC-Chapel Hill still reels from the revelation that, for decades, athletes received course credits for fabricated classes in subjects they hadn’t studied. This scandal smears the reputation of a school top ranked nationwide – and has cost over $10 million in legal and consulting expenses. We couldn’t have a better cautionary tale of why it’s so risky when colleges do whatever it takes to emulate pro sports.
Even barring scandal, high-profile college sports cost a fortune – and it’s one often paid by students already crushed by debt. For example, student fees supported the 2014 move of Appalachian State University into the Sun Belt conference, just as tuition also rose sharply. In a parody from local website RottenAppal, a fictional student learns that further tuition hikes will finance a gargantuan stadium stretching from Alabama to Canada and responds: “I already have some student loans anyway so I’ll probably just take some more out. I’ll only end up owing the US government like 13% of the national debt by the time I graduate, which actually isn’t that bad if you don’t think about it.”
In the grip of sports
Last fall, AppState students were also required to forfeit campus parking spaces – for which they had already paid – on home-game Thursdays, to provide space for fans. This might have prevented some students from attending school, but the university also encouraged faculty to cancel classes – and these weren’t fabricated classes, either. These were the real kind of classes that actually meet. A campus protest and petition yielded few results: Once in the grip of commercialized football, there’s little room to maneuver. We’re playing NFL ball now!
The perennial argument for college football is that whatever the start-up costs, it ultimately turns a profit. Yet studies show that only top teams make money: Donors want winners, yet each football game must produce one loser. It’s a zero-sum game pitting public universities against each other, with the victory of one entailing literal costs to the others. Schools new to the game enter a risky lottery – a less innocent Power Ball where students get stuck with the losing tickets. Even when an underdog wins, it’s a net loss for American education.
Mispaid student fees
Football is said to nourish such virtues as teamwork and persistence – and this is certainly true of smaller, grassroots sports. But as the pro model takes hold, passive student-spectators soon vastly outnumber student-athletes in any college stadium. As a few elite players tackle one other in the distance, how can fans in the stands shape the game except to cheer on cue and keep paying those student fees? And how does this prepare them for their own futures of creativity and initiative?
Even for athletes, the path to later life is fraught with risk. Ongoing research confirms that sports concussions may cause long-term brain damage, a heavy price to exact from athletes who are not themselves paid to play. The time demands of sports distract from education, leading to high attrition and academic scandals such as Chapel Hill’s. Even the career path of coaching – a natural evolution for gifted athletes – remains closed to many: Although a high percentage of top football players are black, the overwhelming majority of head college coaches are white.
My argument here in no way targets the NFL itself. With its special status as America’s favorite sport, NFL football brings joy to a lot of folks – especially this year in North Carolina, anticipating the SuperBowl! And that’s all fantastic, in its place. But its place is in your living room with your dips and BBQ and friends and the Panthers. Maybe the stadium, if you get lucky. Not in your college parking space and definitely not on your student bill.
State universities aren’t the place “to play NFL ball.” It’s the wrong model for collegiate athletics, and the wrong metaphor for a vibrant campus. Leave the Power Ball where it belongs – with the pros – and let universities invest in learning. That’s a gamble everyone can win, and a better bet for North Carolina.
Catherine J. Cole of Boone has a Ph.D. in music and is working on a master’s in biology, with an emphasis in plant ecophysiology, at Appalachian State.