Oh what a twisted web college athletics weaves. If it is not Baylor’s efforts to cover up rape allegations by football players, it is charges against Mississippi dealing with academic fraud and booster loans and payments. If it is not bogus classes at North Carolina, it is falsifying Pell Grants at Miami.
With each new revelation of wrongdoing – and, yes, it does appear endless – you have to wonder if a single university will ever stand up in the face of athletics for the sake of saving its academic reputation. If just one college would propose scaling back athletics, perhaps others would fall in line.
I am not holding my breath.
“I think colleges and universities sold their soul (to athletics) a long time ago,” says Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
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However exceptional, there exists historical evidence of downsizing in athletics, including in North Carolina.
I think colleges and universities sold their soul (to athletics) a long time ago.
Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina
The University of Chicago was, if not the first, the most high-profile institution to call a halt to excesses in athletics. Chicago was a charter member of the Big Ten Conference and produced a national championship and Heisman Trophy winner (Jay Berwanger) while establishing itself as a football power from 1892 to 1939.
No scandal motivated Chicago’s decision to de-emphasize athletics and eliminate the football program. Rather, Chicago President Robert Hutchins believed athletics was defaming the sterling name of a university that has produced 85 Nobel Prizes.
“In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one,” Hutchins wrote at the time in The Saturday Evening Post.
Closer to home, William Friday took a similar stand as the first president of the University of North Carolina system. Following the point-shaving scandals of the early 1960s in men’s basketball, Friday eliminated the popular Dixie Classic tournament, reduced scholarships and curtailed scheduling at N.C. State and UNC.
Friday believed athletics – men’s basketball, specifically – teetered on the brink of no longer representing the mission of the university. Therein lies the problem with similar actions occurring in today’s climate, at least according to Southall and Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist with a specialty in the economics of college sports for OSKR services.
Schwarz says schools could better deal with scandal in athletics by paying players.
“If the schools abandoned the price fixing of scholarships and let the market prices prevail,” Schwarz said in an email, “they’d clean out a lot of the potential bad publicity and could repurpose their ‘compliance’ on things that matter, like academic integrity, lack of sexual misconduct, or health and safety concerns.”
Southall says athletics have merely fallen in line with the changing mission of colleges and universities that education is now a commodity used to generate revenue. He uses as examples the fact that universities now build apartments instead of dormitories and operate food courts instead of cafeterias.
In that vein, college athletics generate revenue. Yet USA Today, in its annual study, shows that only a couple of dozen athletics departments produce a profit. Michigan, for example, generated $152 million in revenue in fiscal year 2014-15 to rank fourth nationally, but netted only $1 million in profit.
Football and men’s basketball generate a bulk of that revenue and, in nearly every instance, provide the financial support for all other sports such as wrestling and baseball and men’s and women’s tennis. So, de-emphasizing football or men’s basketball in the wake of a scandal would seem to be pie-in-the-sky thinking, unless a school elected to eliminate athletics altogether.
We may never reverse the tilted whirl that defines an institution of higher learning by its athletic accomplishments over its academic prowess. Unfortunately, North Carolina is likely known more nationally for its men’s basketball and women’s soccer programs over its business school’s outstanding MBA program or the renowned Gillings School of Global Public Health.
College presidents often talk about athletics being the front porch to the university. It would be refreshing if one of those schools, in the aftermath of another athletics scandal, elected to finally remove all the broken down appliances from that front porch.
I am not holding my breath.