Every so often the debate is revived about the vast amounts of money in college sports, particularly football and basketball, and whether or not college athletes should be paid. The billions of dollars generated in revenues every year (The University of Texas ostensibly made a profit of $68 million on football alone last year) from ticket sales, concessions, memorabilia, and gigantic TV rights, coupled with so-called scandals of athletes accepting gifts from boosters even as their schools and coaches pocket vast sums of money each year, have called into question the definition and nature of college athletics. Perhaps a more fitting debate needs to center on the definition and nature of American economics and our own brand of capitalism. College sports, indeed all sports and the way they are conducted are deeply rooted in our national psyche, in the way this nation was built and the way we think of ourselves.
American Wall-Street trickle-down economics derives from the rugged individualism engendered in the spirit that founded the country, the so-called immigrant work ethic which promised rewards only if we worked ourselves to the bone and were completely self-reliant! We set ourselves apart from the “home country,” from European social capitalism which included profit sharing, handouts, and in some cases unabashed welfare! The sad truth for us is that by at least trying to be inclusive (yes, they don’t always succeed and, yes, they have their own problems) Europeans are moving towards a more progressive society as we either lag behind in a state of inertia or are regressing into more segregated communities on many levels. Asian, South American, and African societies may not be as progressive as Europe but they have the same sense of collectivism that may ultimately save them; witness India and China.
What has this to do with sports, and particularly college athletics? Simply this: they are conducted along the same lines as our economic and social agendas—let’s get what we can when we can for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost! The top colleges say to themselves, “we built these programs by ourselves for ourselves; why should we care about anyone else?” Thus Notre Dame can sign individual TV contracts with NBC and other universities are courted by Nike or other corporations and the rich get richer. U-Conn’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun once defended his salary by arrogantly proclaiming that he could do the math, for his program brought in millions to the university. This seems to be the standard answer when talking about coaches’ salaries and the contributions of athletics programs—they make millions! What it doesn’t take into account, however, is that there would be no university were it not for the toil and talents of several generations of professors, staff, and students who built the academic programs to attract millions of students. Only a tiny percentage of students enroll at a university because of its successful football or basketball programs (although they might hear of the school because of them); and the work of the students, faculty, researchers, administrators, and staff over decades is the reason a university can have an athletics program. Therefore, all successes are dependent not only on the work that went before, on the sacrifices other people made, but also on the continuing commitment of the academic community of the institution. If you go back and look, you will see that every athletics program came into being because of budgetary sacrifices made by personnel outside athletics! To view athletics programs outside this context is naïve, shortsighted, and unjust!
Even as universities and the NCAA fill their coffers, they insist on enforcing the most rigorous amateur rules for the athletes, claiming that scholarships worth thousands of dollars is reward enough. Most athletics programs were instituted along the Athenian model of mind-body consonance—this was the ideal, something to strive towards; athletics would work together with academics to create complete human beings. At some point we moved away from that standard, segregating one from the other until we created a mutually exclusive two-headed monster, each one fighting for a place at the trough, each one nipping at the other! The NCAA rules of eligibility prevent basketball and football players from becoming professional immediately after high school so most of them go to college once they meet minimum entrance standards, then cluster into majors favorable to their Saturday schedules, and bide their time to become professionally eligible. It really isn’t about studying anymore and the sad fact is that 98 percent (who never make it to the pros) will have squandered their chance at an education! So, when a university willingly spends more than fifty percent of its academic scholarships on athletes who waste them, and the majority of its other students pay a fortune in tuition, what does it say about our priorities when it comes to education?
Unfortunately, the sharing of wealth is considered anathema by our capitalist system. We think of ourselves as individuals working towards our own ends; anything else (despite numerous examples of government and public funding) is deprecated as socialism. If profit sharing is a constant source of debate in American professional sports imagine how much more impossible it would be for blue chip college programs to share the wealth across the board among other schools—that’s un-American!! So what chance do athletes have of getting even a piece of the pie they themselves have baked?!
I am not advocating salaries or stipends for athletes—I think the question is far more complex! It isn’t whether we should pay our athletes (what about then paying every student who brings prestige to the university in one form or another?) but whether athletics in their current forms should be part of a university. The US is probably the only country that feeds its professional leagues from college ranks (except, to some extent, baseball); other nations have a tiered structure of minor divisions leading up to the major league. This allows college sports to be what they were originally designed for—a way to develop the body along with the mind. And that should be their only place in the academy! Until we can find a way to incorporate that into our system, until we can return to some of our former ideals about education, college athletics will continue to be dominated by economics and marked by academic scandals, hypocrisy, and a slow degeneration of educational ideals.