Conservative political pundit George Will takes a shot at defending college football in this article. His comments do not delineate between public and private institutions, so his arguments are not a precise match for my concerns. But there is enough there for me to consider the validity of what he has to say.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. College athletic programs comprise a semi-professional sports industry. As Will admits in his article, the athletes are compensated, albeit; through somewhat indirect methods. Coaching staffs are well paid. Some are very highly paid. There is a broad spectrum of people employed in these programs. Those outside of the colleges that also make money through these programs run the gamut from equipment manufacturers to construction contractors to fast food companies to broadcasters to ticket resellers.
Will pooh-poohs the concerns of those that believe that institutions of higher education have no valid reason to be associated with semi-professional sports. Although I think the marriage of higher education and semi-pro sports to be an odd match, I have no problem with private institutions that don’t use public funding to support their sports habit.
College sports programs bring in a lot of money to many schools. While Will notes that forty percent of Division I football programs lose money, those at the high end of the sixty percent of profitable programs bring in a lot of money. After regaling readers with a list of ways money pours into these programs, Will writes:
“Most of the money that flows into big-time football programs from individuals and corporations is tax-deductible for the spenders, and the universities' athletic programs are not taxed. Congress, however ravenous for revenues, will not dare to change this.”Will has no problem with the fact that many so-called student athletes manage to meet NCAA academic requirements in a somewhat less than forthright manner. This, he asserts, is just a symptom of dumb rules that should be dumped. I’m all for dumping the rules that provide a student façade to semi-pro athletes. Let the naked truth of the matter stand for itself. But I think that if that happened, people like Will would soon want the rules back to provide a chimera of educational legitimacy to cover the ugly exposure of reality.
Nowhere does Will express any concern over the public money that supports these programs. All he talks about is money from boosters. He suggests that without this money, many colleges would never have grown to their current stature. Educational programs, he seems to claim, owe their very existence to college sports. Will relishes the Bear Bryant quote, “It's kind of hard to rally 'round a math class.”
I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for public colleges and universities to have less stature and more educational quality. Will expresses no curiosity about such matters. He would likely retort that stature and educational quality go hand in hand, despite ample evidence that such correlations are ethereal. I also wonder how much of this fundraising is simply done to build bigger sports programs to raise more funds to build bigger sports programs….
Will is nevertheless correct when he suggests that football programs constitute a meaningful cultural ritual. Although I care not one whit for football, it cannot be denied that it has massive impact on American culture. Many follow it with more religious fervor than they follow their own religions. Perhaps separation of church and state should apply to football as well.
Getting back to my original concerns, it is important to note that sixty percent of Division I football programs are profitable only because of the way the books are kept. With rare exception, these programs never repay any of the public dollars they receive. If these programs had to repay all public money, only a nearly nonexistent fraction of them would be profitable.
The best argument that can be cobbled together from Will’s article in favor of public funding of educationally based semi-pro sports programs is that maybe some of these schools wouldn’t be able to offer the kind of educational programs they currently offer without the public support engendered by the cultural ritual of sports.
In other words, sans publicly funded athletic entertainment, we would choose ignorance over enlightenment. I’m not convinced.