Making Money Or Making Grades??

By Martin Gottlieb
Updated: January 16, 2009

“A March report from the NCAA concludes what many have long feared about the real costs of college sports: The vast majority of athletics departments operate in the red.”

— The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 23, 2008.

DAYTON — Some people assume that the best case for athletic scholarships is that high-profile collegiate sports programs bring in money — via ticket sales, television contracts, alumni gifts and whatnot — that can then be applied to academic programs. Wrong.

The report noted above is about Division I schools, the big ones. It represents the first effort by the NCAA to systematically analyze where sports programs get their money.

The word “red” means that schools must give money to the athletic departments, as opposed to receiving money. The report doesn’t present information about individual schools. But it does offer some clues.

Says the Chronicle, “Just 17 of the more than 300 athletics programs in all of Division I … earned a net profit between 2004 and 2006. … Sixteen of those … were from the elite Division I-A level, or what is now called the Football Bowl Subdivision.”

In other words, if your conference gets automatic invitations to bowl games, you might make a profit. The overarching financial problem for college sports, says the report, is that, while income has been rising, expenses have been rising more.

Think about those incredible salaries for coaches. (It’s not just football and basketball. The median salary for hockey coaches in the top division is a quarter-million.)

Also, there are sports that, unlike big-time basketball and football programs, bring in virtually no money, but can cost a half-million a year, or more. Track and field is one.

Actually, even if athletic departments did bring in money for academic programs, that wouldn’t be an overwhelming case for athletic scholarships. After all, who’s to say there wouldn’t be a way to make money on sports without paying the athletes?

Athletic scholarships have become an American institution because of competition between schools. If your competitors give scholarships, then you want to.

But what if your competitors didn’t?

A school as big as Ohio State University would presumably be able to put up a very watchable basketball or football team without scholarships if it didn’t have to compete for athletes with schools that do give scholarships.

If there were no athletic scholarships, maybe some athletes would find an alternative to school, say a minor-league team or semi-pro team, if such options sprang up. But there’d be plenty of other athletes who’d want to go to college.

If arguments about the role of profit in college sports don’t seem particularly powerful to somebody who has qualms about athletic scholarships on principle, neither do the arguments about grades, graduation rates, test scores and all that.

The arguments have been beaten to death. You may have heard them. An attempt at a summary:

Just last month the Atlanta Constitution looked into the situation at the colleges in Georgia. It found that the SAT scores of athletes in the high-profile sports (the paper didn’t look at other sports) run several hundred points below the average that prevails at any particular school.

Of course, some of those athletes are on scholarships.

Defenders of the system say test scores are not the right stat to look at; what matters are graduation rates.

Of course, the big-time colleges have come in for much flak on that score, too, over the years. But they’ve made progress. They note now that graduation rates among, for example, black athletes is slightly higher than for black students in general.

In response, some say that graduation rates (and grades) are not necessarily the right measures, if athletes are taking easy courses or getting special treatment. There has been no systematic study of that.

What we’re left with at bottom is what we started with:

People are getting scholarships to play games, and the suspicion cannot be put to rest that the same money could instead go to other students, on the basis of grades, test scores, need or some other worthy measure.

Of course, the issue of race must be confronted. At a Division I school, blacks are likely to be four times more represented among scholarship athletes than in the student body as a whole.

So just flatly, simplistically ending sports scholarships would represent a step backward in a realm where progress is still needed. But there are plenty of minority students who aren’t athletes who need some help to go to college and who could perform well in the classroom.