Collegiate Sports vs College Education: Why they must be at odds

Sports vs. education: does it all boil down to money?

Posted Jun 16, 2010

This past week, the NCAA announced, after a lengthy investigation, that it would be levying heavy sanctions on the University of Southern California’s Athletic Department; specifically with regards to activities that involved the men’s basketball, men’s football and the women’s tennis teams.

In their report the NCAA stated, “The actions of those professional agents and their associates, with the knowledge and acquiescence of the athletes, struck at the heart of the NCAA's Principle of Amateurism, which states that participation in intercollegiate athletics should be "motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental, and social benefits to be derived.’” Further, they surmised that the actions discovered in their investigation “fostered an atmosphere in which student-athletes could feel entitled to special treatment and which almost certainly contributed to the difficulties of compliance staff in achieving a rules-compliant program.”

Is the situation at USC an aberration or the natural result of a system that utilizes “amateur” athletes as the horses that pull the money-wagon to their eagerly awaiting university coffers?  For many years, the academics have cried foul while athletes were filling the university rosters with little aim towards completing their education.  This position has been short-sighted when you consider that no academician complained about the buildings, reputation and other good will that comes a university’s way when their athletic programs are thriving.  Rather than stating that the athletes were taking the place of other potential students with scholastic goals, a stronger argument can be made for the system’s willingness to capitalize (in the true financial sense) on turning the athletes into indentured servants; contributing to the big business of college sports.

True, when athletes get a “free ride” they are offered educational opportunities that they might not have gained based on the merit of their grades, but there are also a fair amount of athletes that earn about $25,000/year (tuition, room and board, etc) while they return a much higher dollar figure in revenue from the sport they participate in.  The idea of NCAA sports focusing upon amateurism is translated by some, as the school makes money off of them, and they are not allowed any of the money that their performance translates into.

These circumstances lead many athletes; especially with professional aspirations (and the skills to match) to get through college as quickly as possible and earn huge salaries before the bad luck of an injury robs those opportunities.  Many athletes feel taken advantage of, but are okay with it in exchange for the exposure that collegiate sports provide, which in turn can increase the likelihood of an even bigger payday down the line.

With all of this as the backdrop, is it any surprise that everyone will want a piece of the pie?  Agents will try to seduce athletes into their camps with promises of riches.  Is it really fair, let alone realistic, for an adolescent in an Adonis’ body to have the developmental maturity to do what is morally right, rather than follow the intoxicating allure of hedonistic promise that the star athlete can experience?  I don’t think so.

So, when we consider the NCAA’s credo that the “participation in intercollegiate athletics should be "motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental, and social benefits to be derived,’” we should note the slight hypocrisy of asking the athletes motivations to be these, while many others involved in collegiate sport are motivated by the old-standby – capitalistic drive.

Because of all of this, athletic programs that exist in academic institutions will often have conflict because there is little compatibility between their missions…..right?  Athletic programs compete for excellence.  The teams hope to achieve championships, justify school pride, stimulate the generosity of boosters and alumni, and make a good penny in bowls and tournaments.  Academics are interested in education, making their students brighter, more learned.  But, if this were true, then why do universities ever make profits?  Why isn’t tuition and fees, solely based upon operating costs; such that what the student pays, is what is necessary to keep the school open?

The reason is our educational systems, at many levels, do not just have the goals of teaching as their mission.  Education is big business too.  When you have two factions trying to make money, operating in the same space, there is a risk for competition.  But, these two programs (education and athletics) need not cancel each other out.  They can co-exist and do so in institutions that are more resistant to relax their admission requirements for star athletes. 

The unfortunate reality is that if an institution will limit its pool of potential athletic recruits based upon academic achievement, it is much harder to build a successful sports program.  Without the conscious decision to value both sides of the coin, the school is enticing the temptress to seduce the athlete to where the money is; and then, the NCAA is right on the money: higher profile athletes will require higher profile monitoring.  And when the university turns a blind eye, they will be tarred and feathered.  The punishments will be unfair in some ways, as the current student-athletes will be punished for the behavior of those that preceded them (not ignoring coaches’ responsibility to prevent these transgressions).  What is the most beautiful irony of this process?  The sanctions will impact the university’s ability to make more money.

Sports are a metaphor for life; a microcosm if you will.  All too often, if you want to understand the system, follow the dollar and it will lead you to the answers