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Are college sports worth the cost?

Last week we investigated the financial woes of public universities whose state budgets are forcing them to make painful cuts to the classroom. While administrations are cutting academic programs, faculty members and support staff, athletic programs at places like Ohio University remain intact, leaving students and the public to shoulder the cost of supporting the Division I teams through tuition fees and tax dollars.

While many of the viewer-driven discussions that followed focused on Ohio University itself, many more addressed the profitability of intercollegiate sports in general and the prioritization of athletics over academics. E. Copen questioned the fairness of supporting sports programs for others while receiving little in return:

I’ve never been to a sporting event and probably never will go. Why should I have to pay for someone else’s experience at a Division I school? Who is going to pay for my experience? Me and my $50,000 of undergraduate student loans.

Cgeorge_2010 echoed similar sentiments:

It really is sad that the average students aren’t eligible for most scholarships but the students who are good at sports can get a free ride. Some of these students don’t even do that well. I think a lot of our young people have been given this idea while growing up that if you are good in sports, you can get into a good college for free and then maybe the professional league will hire you and you can make millions. It is ridiculous that so much emphasis is put on sports and the average student suffers for it.

But OU Alum 2008 predicted that cutting back on costs by switching to Division II instead of Division I would cause public and alumni support for the school to fall:

I’m sure the Athens Chamber of Commerce would LOVE a cut to D2. I’ll tell you what would happen. A lot of loyal alumni would turn their backs on the university. They would end their donations and probably visit Athens much less. I work in higher education admissions and the most common question that high school students ask me is “Do you have sports?”

… The program failed to mention that OU’s athletic budget makes up less than 3% of Ohio University’s overall budget.

On our Facebook page, Lisa S. decried the general emphasis of sports over academics or the arts:

I think it’s disgusting how much emphasis is put into sports, not just on the collegiate level but in society as a whole. The amount of the contracts most athletes make is absurd. There has been created an environment that allows games higher importance than academics or the arts or anything else. These are often the programs where the deepest cuts are made first.

But Peter W. pointed out that although universities should emphasize academics, they cannot overlook the moneymaking potential of intercollegiate sports:

OK, even though I think colleges are primary institutions of education and that students attending colleges should focus on the academics, I do not believe cutting sports would be a good idea.

The fact is that sports bring money to these schools. Sports are what drives college merchandise sales and alumni donations. Simply looking at it from a financial point of view, cutting sports isn’t that good of an idea. For better or for worse, D1 collegiate athletes have pretty much a full time job training and playing for their team. And if sports bring in money, then getting the best athletes would certainly be the top priority of colleges. With that in mind, then the Nash equilibrium would always end up with colleges offering large scholarships to top athletes.

Now is that how the system should work? I don’t think so. But running a school is ultimately same as running a business; you do what you can to bring in the money.

And commenter Jason G. argued that athletes do not simply get a “free ride” — and added that the real question was not about choosing between sports or academics, but focusing on the real problem: spending wisely.

No, most [athletes] do not turn pro after a couple years because a very, very small percentage of collegiate athletes will even get a shot to turn professional. And all those athletes that are just lounging around to free rides have to do things like workout, practice, go to class, study, study their respective sports, work out some more and then get up and do it all over again. All while the overwhelming majority of regular college students have their schedules set up so they can sleep till 10. So now we just vilify the athlete and make the poor, regular student a saint. Well, I was one of those regular students and I’m not buying the sob story.

… But here’s the problem I have when people place the golden halo around anything related to education and make the ruling that it’s blasphemous to question HOW educational systems and institutions, from K through graduate school, are operated. We continually hear about more and more cries to fund education but not a peep about eliminating waste and sitting down to find a way to spend money more wisely. Of course not. … If politicians in state and federal government weren’t busy blowing our money on programs that don’t work and general, everyday waste, then maybe more money would be available to fund universities.

Does the moneymaking potential of intercollegiate athletics justify the cost to maintain those programs? Watch the segment and weigh in with your thoughts.

Update (March 16): Some students at Ohio University made this video (we believe) in response to our segment. Check it out:

Keep up with all of our reader-driven discussions here at Need to Know, on Facebook and on Twitter.



  • Williamfindley

    Football and to a lesser extent basketball bring a lot of revenue to colleges.

  • tomwaits
  • Prentiss Whitley Jr.

    The real pathetic part of this is the fact that this (the funding of sport teams by public tax dollars for private gain) is the nastiest form of socialism ever. People whine and complain about Social Security and the like, but without socialistic principals we would have no Army, Schools, or interstate highway system.

    Sports, however, are a cancer on our society. Our tax dollar are stolen to build stadiums or practice fields, and then the only people who profit from this are the owners of the team. They don’t pay for their own stadium, make minor tax deductable infrasturcture improvements around the site, then charge $20 hot dogs and $15 mandatory parking. The cities never profit from these “arraignments”.This waste of life has been defended as a self-esteem builder, leadership , blah blah…

    Universities are now held hostage by their teams. Society as a whole does not value or respect thinking or hard work; they are completely engrossed in meaningless entertainment and intellect destroying actions. In order to have the funding that real college study takes, colleges must sell out to the sports complex. They must lessen themselves with cheesy t-shirts and corny mascots. The fact that I am stating this truth will stir up a number of the knuckle-dragging semi-literate and their anger like a long held captive coming to aid their kidnapper.

    Sports destroy society. Our kids are dangerously stupid because of them. What kid will respect a teacher when the illiterate multi-millionaire ball player is on t.v. every night being treated like they matter.

    At the end of the day we dug this hole ourselves. Our rapid fall in the world’s education arena is directly related to sports. The fall of Rome can be traced in large to the same cancer of collesuem contests the average Roman idiot obsessed over.

  • Max Vincent

    Research, research labs, and dedicated instructors, professors and alumni bring a lot of revenue to colleges. Get rid of sports and I guarandamntee you those universities will still stand.

  • tomwaits

    The issue whether some people are being given opportunities and degrees in exchange for doing something other than that for which universities are intended. Substitute filmmaking for playing sports, for example. Nobody would tolerate university funds that were meant to assist capable and determined students who could otherwise not afford an education being dispensed to hire on filmmakers to engage in movie production on behalf of the university; say, an “Ohio State Studios”, even if it did generate revenue for the school. The purpose of a university is subverted when it fails to educate students but instead provides degrees to athletes who have to do far less to earn them then someone who cannot exchange an athletic performance for a degree. The fact that it may generate revenue for the school is outside the scope of the argument, just as it would be to argue that an investment banker should be hired as a linebacker for a professional sports team because he has the potential to create revenue for the team.

  • tomwaits

    *the issue is

  • Lady_mareth_2000

    I don’t mind building up sports teams. I do mind when building up sports teams comes at the price of decent classrooms and academic equipment. The state university I go to doesn’t have enough classrooms, and those it does have are generally too small for the class sizes; if I don’t leave my first class early, I have to sit on the floor during my next class.
    The chemistry lab I used last year wasn’t actually made to be a chemistry lab- so we had to walk down the hallways with various chemicals to get to sinks, vent hoods, etc., which could be dangerous, and also interrupted the class that was scheduled to be using the lab.

    During the same time period, the university spent over a million dollars on a new gym.
    It’s planning on spending over $10 million this coming year- for “better” sports fields.

  • John Michael Graham

    I taught kids at a Big School who were from below the poverty line, grew up in areas with terrible schools with lots of violence and drugs, and were the first people in their families to go college, let alone graduate. We’re not talking about white upper and middle class kids here gaming the system, but a lot of poor and disenfranchised kids use the athletic scholarships as the means to pull themselves up and out of the cycle of poverty.
    Besides, its the Schools of Business that are the last to suffer on campus. Why is nobody complaining that? Why is an accounting major more important than a dance major, or a philosophy major? Where I teach now, my theatre department must beg and borrow and earn every cent that goes into our programming. Any Arts department will tell you that. Yet, the School of Science is the one with funding increases and a new multi-million dollar building.
    There are inequalities all over the place, why just focus on the most highly visible?

  • JoJo

    Things I learned about college football scholarships at Divl.II Universities as my son was being recruited this year: Full ride scholarships are not awarded or very rarely, scholarship funds were awarded to players on percentages so majority of players are still taking out student loans to play football or filling out every scholarship application they can, top players were maybe at 50% scholarship, players are on a strict schedule (up very early, attendance mandatory & checked on by coaches, consequences for not attending classes, weights, practice, meetings, classes, etc…), studyhall is required freshman year at most campuses we were at with coaches over seeing them, teams have 100+ players which means most are receiving very little or no scholarships, weekends are game day Saturday and films/meetings on Sunday or workout/weights for non-starters, they only get 1 day a week to rest their body and that’s a NCAA regulation to my understanding, etc…. The new stadiums, turfs, sports facilities were largely funded by donations not taxes.
    When I attended NDSU, they won 3 National titles as Division II. They are now Division I with a dome and were to a game as a possible recruitment – the Fargodome was packed, students section full and having a blast, pep band doing their thing, band did fabulous pre-show and 1/2 time show… it was amazing, energetic, and was bringing in money to NDSU and the community. Plus the Fargodome is not only for the college is is the main host for venues such as concerts, monster trucks, races, etc… which also benefits the community with revenues.
    We learned that all athletic programs are on strict regulations from NCAA. The amount each university athletic program receives in scholarship dollars is regulated and coaches have to make tough decisions on how to award it. They have strict regulations on recruitment, spending, and awarding. There are academic scholarships that are awarded to students who have great GPA’s and the $ amount of scholarship awarded is based on your GPA level. They put in hard work for their grades in high school and receive recognition from universities through various scholarships. High school athletes who are recruited to play at college level have worked hard to get to this level of play as well. My son put in extra hrs in the weight room, on the field, and doing what it took to be good. He also did the same in the classroom and has a high GPA. As did most of his teammates.
    When it came to signing to a Div. II team… his decision was education based – only 3 schools offer his major. He even turned down a $6000 scholarship (which is huge for a red shirted freshman) because that school did not offer his major of Hydrology. He signed with no athletic scholarship as most freshman do to a university that he would have attended had he not signed to play football. Reason – injuries do happen or the schedule will be too much to keep up with his schoolwork. Players have to work their asses off to earn a % of a scholarship in the next years, and they are not guaranteed from year to year.
    Why are athletes and athletic programs the first to be pointed at for financial blame? These kids don’t have it easy!!! They choose to push themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally not just because they love to play the game, but FINANCIALLY… to help reduce the debt they are acquiring for their education.
    There would be no Homecoming, no FINAL FOUR for basketball, no Bowl games, no Volleyball, Baseball, Golf, Swimming, Wrestling, etc… What if the liberal arts/music were cut… no band/jazz/pop concerts, no theatre/plays/one acts, no choir concerts..
    Funding is tough for everyone and every dept. You take away the athletics/liberal arts/music programs, I feel you take away the campus community, you take away the events that not only bring students together but draws the surrounding communities to the campus.
    A wise head coach of a Div. I team told the recruites this year… NFL stands for NOT FOR LONG!!! He stressed that their education they would be receiving would be a top priority and had a strict academic/study schedule set a side for all players so that they would graduate and be successful after college. He informed them he had just as high expectations academically as athletically. That is what I heard from all the coaches I’ve met… and we met plenty.
    For the record… I work at a high school and I have yet to meet a “dumb” jock. Athletes today are striving to receive Academic acknowledgment and awards through the conferences and state level. This makes them more successful and prepared at the college level.

  • Rick Karr

    Mr. Findley –

    They don’t. The bottom line of our reporting was that the vast majority of colleges and universities have to subsidize their intercollegiate athletics. Only a handful fo schools — no more than a dozen of the biggest schools with the most successful sports programs — actually break even or generate net revenue for their schools. The vast majority are forced to tap tax subsidies, tuition income, or student fees to subsidize sports.

    Yours is a widely-held misconception, but a misconception nonetheless.

    Thanks for watching,

    Rick Karr
    Correspondent, Need to Know

  • Student in Mathematics

    I definitely agree that the determination that an individual needs in order to succeed is great, but if sports are so important and self-sustaing, why do they have to piggy-back on our academic institutions instead of being a stand alone entity that is supported by the communities that love them so much? Fact is, the money that doesn’t get spent on college sports will be spent in other markets and prevent us from pigeonholing our economic activities. Sports are vital for community pride and bragging rights, but I see no need for them to be the centerpiece of a college experience. By the way, does anyone know how much they pay division I coaches?

  • Heero

    Because without science, we’d all still be busy slaving away in fields, or dumping our waste into the street, or dying of cholera, or having everyone, from the rich to the poor, be worse off.

  • John Dunn

    whats sad is why do upper class people get the most athletic scolarships while lower class children have so few chances at an acedemic scholarship