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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.