Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why College Sports?

I’m about to make enemies. The other day, the Standard Examiner ran an editorial expressing discontent with the BCS (Bowl Championship Series). This is the organization that determines which college football teams play in which bowl games.

The BCS replaced the previous system of selecting bowl contenders via AP and coach polling, since that was considered too subjective. Unfortunately, the supposedly more objective BCS system has produced at least as much dissatisfaction as did the old method. Mediocre contenders have been sent to bowl games while less prestigious but superior performers have been sidelined.

As the nation’s sports fans spend copious amounts of time and other resources carping about this system, I am led to a much larger issue. My opinion is hardly unique, but it is considered blasphemous by many. Why do we even have collegiate semi-pro sports? What business does an educational institution have sponsoring what is effectively a semi-pro sports league?

I have this quaint belief that our academic institutions should focus on — well — academics. Participatory intramural sports can certainly play an appropriate role in this type of education. But I question the value of sponsoring semi-pro spectator sports leagues where — let’s be honest — the main purpose of the ‘student-athlete’ is to be a public athletic entertainer.

Our collegiate sport system — particularly men’s football and basketball, but other sports as well — looks and acts like a semi-professional league system, except that we have to be extremely careful about how we ‘pay’ the athletes.

While we pay our college coaches like semi-pro coaches, all player payments must be wink-wink-nod-nod kinds of transactions. Everyone knows what is going on (academic inflation, sweetheart jobs, scholarships, stipends, etc), but we insist on holding up this chimera of scholastic performers that happen to play sports on the side. What are we teaching our children with this?

Why not drop the sham and get semi-pro sports out of our colleges and universities? Let professional sports clubs sponsor minor league teams, as they do in baseball. Let them pay the players what they think the players are worth. Let colleges and universities focus on their actual mission.

“But, Scott,” you say, “sports programs bring a lot of money into our colleges that they use for more worthy academic pursuits.” Do they, now? When all costs are considered (including facilities), how many of our college sports systems regularly produce a significant surplus? Most of our sports programs employ full-time fundraisers that run around pandering for handouts from businesses and individuals. And even for the programs that more than pay for themselves, can we say that this money is worth the moral cost?

“Ah, but you are discounting the community spirit engendered by these programs,” you say. If the private businesses and individuals in a community think that hosting semi-pro sports leagues is a worthy pursuit, by all means let them do it. But why is it necessary to involve taxpayer funds and/or academic institutions?

“You must be a sports hater,” you say. OK, you’ve got me there. I can’t remotely fathom the value of rooting for, aligning myself with, buying promotional paraphernalia for, or wearing clothing with logos of any sports team whatsoever. I mean, these people are playing a GAME, for Pete’s sake.

Why should I give my allegiance to any sports team made up of individuals recruited from all over the place? What common cause do I have with these people? How does it make one iota of difference in reality whether they win or lose a game or a season? Why should I spend even one scintilla of emotion on their performance?

If you’re a sports fan, it’s easy to toss opinions like mine aside as being unbalanced and unimportant. But I implore anyone to effectively explain in an objective manner why our academic institutions should sponsor semi-pro sports teams. I would also like someone to objectively explain why even one cent of taxpayer money should fund this type of entertainment.


Anonymous said...

But Scott, I say, how long has it been since academic institutions have been primarily about academics? If we're really honest with ourselves we must admit that the vast majority of academic institutions are simply businesses for profit using academics as their stated purpose for making those profits. Athletics are all a part of the identity and marketing for the institution but the end goal of the athletic and the academic side of the business is to generate a profit for those in power (the board of regents, state board of ed, whoever it is for any particular institution).

Anonymous said...

Interesting idea. How do you feel about high school athletics?

Scott Hinrichs said...

David, I guess if we're going to talk straight about higher ed, we might as well consider the whole ball of wax instead of just the sports. But what do we do about it?

JHP, I think intramural sports can and should be an important part of a high school education. But I still can't fathom spending time and resources spectating the big ticket sports or spending one more penny of school budget on them than on any other school club or extracurricular pursuit. Why should an accident of geographic proximity cause me to root for one school's team and against another? It makes no sense to me. I don't get the us vs. them mentality fostered by this system.

My kids happen to attend the same high school I attended. If one of them were playing sports, I'd certainly attend the games and cheer for them. But, as has been my practice in their soccer pursuits, I would also cheer the good plays by the opposing team. Since none of my kids currently plays high school sports, I feel zero incentive to attend any game or support a particular team.

If all extracurricular activities were completely self funded, we'd certainly be excluding those that couldn't afford the fees. But I question the value of spending significant sums of taxpayer money on a handful of talented performers when most kids have no hope whatsoever of benefiting from that largess. The funding for this type of entertainment might be more wisely spent.

Unknown said...

That's a thought-provoking write-up, and I'm a college football fan, LOL! Hmm... thanks for the interesting thought topic! :-)