The Cost of College Sports


Let me preface this piece by saying that for the past three and a half years I have been a member of the SMU men’s soccer team, and it has been a wonderful experience. This is not in any way a specific criticism of the SMU athletic department, but as SMU is more understandable to SMU students, it will be used as an example of the profoundly flawed college sports system.

Costs for Academics

There are 128 schools in the football bowl subdivision (FBS), the premier division for college football. Of those 128 football programs, 24 were self-sufficient in 2014. 81% of programs in the FBS—a subdivision that, as I understand it, generates more money for college athletics than any other—cannot support themselves without being subsidized by their universities. Unsurprisingly, SMU is part of that 81%. Setting aside athletics scholarship, which would increase the athletic department’s expenses by $19.7 million, SMU needs a $10.1 million-dollar subsidy from the university’s $462 million operating budget to stay afloat. Rick Hart, SMU’s athletic director, explains the deficit by saying, “The university doesn’t view [athletic spending] as a deficit. A lot of people like to use that term. There’s funding that’s allocated toward athletics, just as there’s funding allocated toward other institutional endeavors.” Let us take a moment to examine that defense.

As I understand it, the purpose of a university is to provide education. Allocating funding toward items like professors, classrooms, and research clearly enhances the provision of education. Spending money to ensure that every student-athlete feels valued on National Student-Athlete day (second in the rankings of American holy days only to National Coloring Book Day) with a free water bottle or portable phone charger, on the other hand, does not seem to enhance the academic environment at SMU. There are 424 student athletes at SMU, so if we go with a conservative estimate of $20 per customized charger, this token of appreciation cost SMU $8,480 last year. A largely inconsequential sum in the grand scheme of things, certainly, but when one of my professors told me her department’s requests for a color printer have been denied for the past decade, the token of SMU’s appreciation that was charging my phone in my backpack began to feel a bit ridiculous. This example is a microcosm of the larger problem—so much money is spent on ensuring that top student-athletes are available and able to play that our academic departments suffer.

Of course, there are counter-arguments. There are schools whose athletic success can dramatically increase their prestige and boost their application rate. For example, there are presumably many people who choose to attend Alabama in part because of its football success. Stories like Alabama’s inspire other schools to pour money into their athletic programs to tap the same pool of applicants for whom quality athletics are a significant draw. Across town in Fort Worth, our rival attempted this process, and it seems to have worked. After a stellar college football and baseball season, TCU saw a huge increase in its application rate. Correlation does not equal causation, though. According to Ray Brown, a dean of admission at TCU, “When we were 0-0, our applications were 60 percent ahead.” A study by Harvard professor Doug Chung found that when a school significantly improves its football program, its applications increase by 18.7%. This makes sense—there are so many schools out there that many are unknown to prospective out-of-state students, so sports success helps increase awareness of a school’s existence. Its value in terms of academics, however, is less certain. While Chung did find that even students with high SAT scores were affected by athletic success—largely because of this branding effect, he believed—it was students with lower-than-average scores that tended to have a stronger preference for athletically successful schools. So even though schools’ application rates may increase dramatically, the quality of their student bodies will not see a comparable improvement.

Other defenses of athletics include the notion that they help with campus diversity goals, increase the quality of the student experience, and provide students a sense of pride in their school. These are indisputable, but are they worth $10 million a year? There are many ways to increase diversity without athletics, and they could probably be implemented with even a portion of that $10 million. Similarly, the student experience is made up of a variety of factors, the most important of which should be academics. If SMU were to move up ten spots in the Princeton Review ranking of schools, I for one would be a lot prouder of my university than if we were to move up fifteen spots in the AP’s college football rankings.

If my thesis—that schools subsidizing athletics is an inefficient use of resources—is correct, there are two directions these institutions can go. They can either cut their athletic programs altogether or they can balance the budgets. Given the wonderful experiences I have had as an SMU student-athlete, I hope they can find a way to make the latter work. It may mean giving out less gear and fewer gifts, only paying our football coach $1 million, or even cutting some non-revenue earning sports (only men’s basketball and football really earn money at most schools, the rest of us just live off them), but it is certainly better than giving up on the experiences sports provide altogether.

Costs to Athletes

College sports aren’t just a drain on schools, however; they can harm the athletes as well. Before Super Bowl XLIX, Richard Sherman made headlines with his statements about his experiences as a student-athlete, saying, “Coaches tell them every day: ‘You’re not on scholarship for school.’” Although athletes fortunate enough to receive scholarships do get a free education, their experience is far more difficult than most. Grueling practices and team meetings fill athlete’s days, limiting the time and energy they are allotted to fit in all the studying and papers other students have all day for. Expectations for athletes impose a significant burden on their capacity to get the free education the NCAA provides in exchange for their blood, sweat, and tears. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this dilemma, as imposing heavier limits on the obligations schools can impose on “student-athletes” (athlete-students, really) would exacerbate the other grand flaw in the NCAA system.

As anyone who has ever watched March Madness knows, from the innumerable commercials telling us most NCAA student-athletes “will go pro in something other than sports,” a very small percentage of student-athletes will ever actually play professional sports. Those who do, however, are sent to the next level after one to four years of thoroughly inadequate preparation. Take soccer, for example. We play a four-month season during which we average approximately one and a half games per week, spending the vast majority of our time either preparing to play a game or recovering from the game. In the interim, coaches spend many of the practice sessions that are not prohibitively close to games focusing on improving team shape. It makes sense—our coaching staff is paid to win, not to send athletes to Major League Soccer. Then, during the offseason, the NCAA imposes strict limitations on our capacity to train to preserve the “student” portion of “student-athlete.” Which makes perfect sense, as it can only preserve the amateurism model that brings in awe-inspiring quantities of cash in exchange for very small payments to athletes if it can continue to convince judges it is providing those athletes with something of true value: an education. But it is an incredible disservice to those gifted athletes who have the potential for a professional career.

On both sides of the college sports equation, then, the participants lose. Colleges lose a great deal of money in exchange for dubious rewards, and athletes lose the opportunity to develop fully in their sport. The only real winners are professional leagues like the NBA and the NFL, who receive reasonably polished products who will make them millions of dollars without ever having to pay a dime to train them. This system simply does not work, and as near and dear to every American’s heart as college sports are, they need an upgrade. Or an elimination.

This article was written by A.J. Jeffries. Click here to see more of A.J.’s work.