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Commentary: Keep college athletics but funding must be addressed.

by David F. Pendrys

For years I have gone to as many college sporting event as I can though I put gymnastics and volleyball at the front of the line when deciding when to go. I believe that college sports, when not tainted by corruption, academic chicanery, or criminal behavior are awesome as are most of the participants among the staff and athletes. I certainly have encountered many great people in my time covering sports.

However, as colleges continue to face financial pressures and many students face mounting loan debt I do ask whether more can be done to make athletics less reliant on other university funds and whether the money is being spent appropriately. One can point to UConn paying it’s former football coach $750,000 to quit (Hartford Courant) as an example of questioning athletics spending. 750K by the way is equal to the entire athletics budget at Albertus Magnus according to their Equity in Athletics filing.

It is not easy to connect the dots though regarding funding. The U.S. Government does present every athletics balance sheet with various budget lines, but they usually add up providing little insight into where the money is coming from or going. Aside from highly publicized donations there is not a lot of data on how much funding comes from there. Also, as USA Today points out, most universities subsidize their athletics programs likely through fee money. It really should be very clear just how much money is coming in from donations and how much is drawn from university budgets. This also should be broken down per student. You can sometimes decipher how much fee money is coming from each student, though many universities group athletics in with activity fees so it’s hard to know what goes where. A notable example of transparency is the University of New Hampshire which not only has a separate athletics fee, but it is also voted on by the student government each year (The New Hampshire). 

Athletics do benefit the university by providing exposure and attracting students and donors, but but if you spend 10 dollars to make 100 dollars you are investing wisely. If you invest 100 and get 10 in revenue you’re probably not unless there is another return.  If you invest in your school and produce a sterling academic reputation because you can measure your results and strong academic students flock to your school wonderful, but is it that easy to measure? How much is too much? Would you achieve the same level of success spending less or conversely, is it possible that if you don’t spend enough you’re just totally wasting the money? It could go both ways. But if in the end you invest the money and the results are not great then it’s just making it harder for students to attend your school and giving them additional debt which will affect their ability to advance in careers and ultimately make the school’s education look less valuable

Colleges at the D3 and D2 level seem to be relatively immune to this but at D1 the arms race is underway. The arms race is part of most aspects of university life, whether it is new buildings, new fitness centers, new this new that… The goal is to attract the best students and presumably some who can pay their bills as well. This is not a criticism just likely the business approach.

For the most part in athletics revenue in sports comes from football and basketball, but at the FBS and FCS level there is only so much revenue to be had. Only a few teams will win titles, and many teams will not even win. If a school invests in the stadium, the facilities et cetera, and does not produce success it will likely lose fan support. At UConn we see that when the teams dip, fan support decreases. (Heck even when they win it decreases sometimes.) At division 1 super powerhouses like Michigan, revenue likely comes in even during losing seasons due to the sheer fan vibrancy, but in school’s that aren’t there is there not the potential to spend a ton of money and just create a massive drain

I do believe athletes deserve scholarships, but I also know that many non athletes were not given enough scholarships so I think there is a problem. Athletes are basically brought in to provide a service for the university, and there are lawsuits going on regarding what that legally means, but the point is yes, these students are brought in to perform a service and to work hard and risk their bodies doing so. HOWEVER, the danger is that in this era of rising costs you will have athletes earning scholarships with variable academic performance, though of course many athletes do achieve academically, meanwhile potentially solid academic non athletes are being forced to take loans or are not eligible for funding. Putting aside any moral concerns about who deserves what you are naturally setting academics vs. athletics and that in a sense will provide problems later, as first of all you are cutting fan support for athletics among current students who might not be appreciative of the disparity. Second of all, university fund raising support could be damaged if alums think back to their rising bills. It is a moral issue though, colleges are academic institutions, the academic health of a college should be settled before money goes to athletics, it’s only fair to everyone.

It is easy for me to say all this though, not being a university budget administrator or an athletic director. But I think every effort should be made to make athletics self sufficient or at least a small draw of university funds. I also think students should be able to choose whether they want to fund athletics or not, and student tickets should be variable, so students seeking the best seats could pay more for the privilege. This would balance out those who do not want to pay with those who do. The funding process should be transparent to show parents and students how much money is going to athletics so they can make an honest decision

With students struggling to make ends meet they deserve to first of all know what they are paying for athletics, as well as have as much financial aid available as possible. it is not hard to see the moral question over whether universities should channel money towards athletics scholarships as opposed to academic scholarships. I would hope this could be handled through private donations from those who really enjoy athletics. Students should be able to choose when they pick a university what the funding structure will be, if they don’t get a choice over whether to pay they should at least see what they would pay, or be given incentives to pay. These costs should also be held in check so that students are not having their bills added to significantly without cause. The goal should be preserve athletics but not breed resentment and affect other students abilities to get an education. It would then bring the community together by not pitting them against each other.

I believe there’s a way to do this, especially given how necessary it is becoming to control costs.  Universities may find themselves competing with schools that do not offer athletics and can thus just spend on academics. I don’t know where things are going, but I really want athletics to survive it. I don’t want there to be cuts, i want the stands full whether it’s a football game or a volleyball game, and I think these questions are inevitably going to be faced anyway. I also think though every student should be given a choice over how much they want to support a team and how much they care. Some students require athletics to go to a university, some would prefer they didn’t exist. Everyone should be served.


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