Polling data confirm that Americans, in general, have a rather low opinion of their colleges and universities. They think they are too expensive and are turned off by the wokeness and arrogance of the administrators and faculty. Some data suggest the critical thinking and writing skills of students are deficient, as is their general knowledge. No wonder enrollments today are lower than a decade ago.
But there is one area in which our colleges and universities seemingly excel, exhibiting a somewhat perverse form of American exceptionalism: ball-throwing contests! On every Saturday this fall and some other days and nights as well, millions of Americans are glued to their television sets, watching their favorite college football team competing against its competitor du jour. Hundreds of schools, but just about 70 realistically in the FBS group of NCAA schools, compete to be declared the best team in America as determined by playoff games, to be duplicated in winter by a basketball brouhaha culminating in March Madness.
Throwing Balls Is Expensive
The public’s love for college major sports is enormous, so literally billions of dollars are spent annually by fans buying tickets, by media companies showing games to the public, and assorted additional revenues from concession stands, parking lot fees, sale of sweatshirts, etc. The accounting standards used in measuring the revenues and spending of college sporting operations would not pass muster with the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Accounting Standards Board, but they accurately suggest that there are a double-digit number of universities spending over $100 million annually on their athletic departments, a handful of which actually claim they make a “profit.” (READ MORE: The Non-Binary Athletic Category Hurts Female Athletes)
But there are also a lot of universities like the one with which I am associated, Ohio University, that spend $25 million or more annually on their athletic programs (excluding such standard and fairly large accounting costs as depreciation on stadiums, arenas, and indoor practice facilities) and yet receive maybe $5 million or so in ticket, TV, and miscellaneous other revenues, leading to an annual loss of $20 million or more, not inconsequential sums at schools with, say, 20,000 students. (VIDEO: 70 Percent of Americans Oppose Transgender Athletes in Women’s Sports)
To be sure, there are many smaller colleges and universities not in the major athletic cartel’s (NCAA) FBS schools, which operate much more modestly, but even many liberal arts colleges consider the lure of potential athletic participation an important means of attracting students. But despite its enduring popularity, American collegiate athletics are full of several perplexing perversities. Let’s list just six of them here.
- Major athletic powers belong to “conferences” where they play most of their games, but these conferences have grown to irrational size;
- At the athletically top schools, head coaches make at least five times as much as their bosses, the university president;
- Superior college athletes are the victims of arguably the most perverse example of adult economic exploitation of children/young adults — excepting the sex trafficking of young kids;
- Athletes increasingly have only a tangential meaningful connection with the school they play for, especially since the innovation of the “transfer portal”;
- One strange annual ritual: teams occasionally engage in mutually beneficial acts of athletic massacre, an ostensibly win-win exercise where one team clobbers the other;
- Although supposedly “students,” many top players spend more time on sports than on studying, and scandals abound over irregularities designed to make semi-literate players eligible to perform.
The Super-Sized Athletic Conference Absurdity
In the 20th century, athletic conferences were typically seven to 10 or, at the very most, 12 teams that played most games between each other, culminating in a conference championship and maybe a bowl game or the NCAA national basketball championship (March Madness). But conferences have gotten greedy and become much larger. The Big Ten had 10 midwestern members between the 1950s and 1990s when they admitted powerhouse Penn State — straining the definition of “midwestern.” By 2014, the league had expanded to 14 teams by admitting Maryland, Rutgers, and Nebraska. In 2024, the league has reached 18 schools, admitting four Pacific Coast schools: Cal Berkeley, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington. The conference will stretch between the Atlantic and Pacific. Can Canada, Europe, and the International Space Station be far behind? Travel expenses will soar — have you ever rented a couple of large aircraft to fly coast to coast with 200-300 players, coaches, university administrators, marching band and their instruments, cheerleaders, and a few uber-rich alumni? Other big conferences likewise are expanding — the so-called Atlantic Coast Conference, for example, has taken in Stanford and Cal, not exactly neighbors to schools like Duke or Florida State. One long-time conference, the PAC 12, appears to be disappearing in the shuffle.
The coaches at the very top football schools make close to $10 million a year (independent of commercial endorsements), while their bosses, the college presidents, typically make roughly one million. Even “offensive and defensive coordinators” make more than the university president — or, for that matter, the President of the United States (counterargument: yes, but they do a better job). Why? Because most of the college big-time sports labor is ultra-cheap (the players work for next to nothing), the vast financial gains that players produce largely are scarfed up by the coaches. Where else do some employees make 10 times as much as their bosses?
Poor Players — But Changing
At present, the star quarterback of a team like the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, or Alabama would get a “scholarship” covering tuition, room and board, books, and a small amount for incidentals, worth possibly $50,000 a year — for performing services providing perhaps one to five million dollars revenue to his university. Adult slaves on the eve of the Civil War received in-kind compensation worth maybe 40 percent of what they would have received if getting a competitive wage. Today’s top college football players probably get closer to 10-20 percent. Facing a national rebellion over the injustice, athletes now may receive payments for their name, image, and likeness (NIL), which for superstars is probably worth a high six-digit amount. My sense is before long, the pretense of the “student-athlete” will be gone, and players will earn salaries.
Roving Athletes: Loss of School Identify and the ‘Transfer Portal’
Historically, athletes attended college like other kids, most often graduating in four years from the school they entered. That relationship has broken down. Take Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Joe Burrow. After graduating from high school, he went to Ohio State in 2014, where he languished as a backup quarterback, although he successfully earned a bachelor’s degree. He transferred as a graduate student to LSU in 2018, where he stayed for two years, winning the Heisman Trophy (and a master’s degree) with LSU becoming the national football champion. The NCAA now allows students with relative ease to change schools by using something called the transfer portal. New University of Colorado head coach Deion Sanders brought in 47 (!) new transfer players via the portal, transforming a 1-11 record team last year overnight into an undefeated nationally-ranked one. But how much “Colorado” is there in the Colorado Buffaloes?
Mutually Beneficial Acts of Athletic Massacre for Fun and Profit
Every year, the better football and basketball teams typically play a few games at the beginning of their seasons against hapless opponents they are expected to slaughter, and usually do. For example, this year in football, top-ranked Georgia, in its first game, annihilated a much weaker Ball State team 45 to 3. Second-ranked Michigan beat East Carolina by 27 points in its first game and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas by 28 points in its second. Why did Ball State, East Carolina, and UNLV accept this inevitable humiliation? For the top-ranked team, it provided an opportunity to test rookie players, try new plays, and pad their record ahead of more challenging games ahead. For the loser, usually, it provided revenue — the top-ranked team gives some money to the hapless competitor who can later brag, “We played one of the nation’s top teams before 80,000 fans (instead of the usual 10,000).”
The Fiction of the “Student Athlete”
With the passage of time, the connection between true higher education, student learning, and athletics has dramatically loosened. Take the Big Ten. It has historically been an association of some of the nation’s leading research universities. Schools like Michigan, Northwestern, Illinois, and Wisconsin are renowned for their contribution to higher learning and expanding the frontiers of knowledge. Learning was first, sports a secondary incidental. Indeed, Michigan was briefly kicked out of the Big Ten in its early years for playing more than five games in one season — putting too much emphasis on sports.
Today, even prestigious schools like the University of North Carolina have faced major scandals for cheating to get players with abysmal academic performance eligible to play. Schools have been accused of providing sex for superstar high school football or basketball players that they want to recruit. In recent months, two Big Ten head football coaches (at Northwestern and Michigan State) have been fired or suspended because of inappropriate sex-tinged issues. Increasingly, intercollegiate American sports is a national embarrassment, a blight on the reputation of academic first-rate institutions.
How to Make Throwing Balls Worth It
For years, reformist groups, including the Knight Commission and, more radically, the Drake Group, have clamored to fix the problems, and the threat of anti-trust actions and federal legislation have somewhat constrained the NCAA cartel providing general oversight of big-time college sports. The cries are growing. Will anything be done?
A somewhat radical but intriguing idea is to divest colleges and universities of big-time sports. How? Have universities sell their football and basketball athletic franchises, including playing facilities, to a for-profit private group. The school will lend its name, image, and likeness to the group in return for annual payments. To maintain some semblance of a student tie to education, perhaps it might be required that all athletes must satisfactorily complete 15 credit hours of academic work annually (about half the normal student load), can compete for the “college” team no more than five years, and must be 26 years old or younger. NFL franchises are literally worth billions. Perhaps the same is true for Notre Dame, Alabama, Texas, the University of Southern California, and other historically powerful teams. The billions colleges receive from the sale of their stadiums, practice facilities, and name recognition could be added to the university endowment, providing tens of millions of investment dollars annually for top schools. A small enforcement group would be necessary to ensure that the new privately owned teams do not cheat on the very light academic affiliation athletes must maintain with the schools. (READ MORE: The Day the Pac-12 Died)
Colleges are for discovery and knowledge dissemination, not ball-throwing and selling popcorn. It is time for college sports to rediscover its roots. Colleges can continue to offer non-professional opportunities for students to get the benefits of vigorous exercise, discipline, and leadership qualities derived from competitive sports — via lower-keyed intramural activities or perhaps the amateur competition from genuine students found presently in the many schools at the Division 3 level of the NCAA or non-NCAA teams. Make college sports honest again!
Richard Vedder is a distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio University, Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and author of Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.