Should institutions support non-cash sports programs?

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From a reader: just explain to me why a college / university would continue to support athletic programs that do not make money and, in fact, result in grants, which could be supported at the expense of the mission to succeed. students for non-athlete students?

Great question. I’ll cover a few highlights, highlight some of the ways that individual institutions can weigh the cost versus the value of a sports program, and provide a few articles that can provide additional information.

Most sports programs are not profitable. Each year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association publishes an annual report on the finances of intercollegiate athletics. The 2020 report found that only 25 programs in Division I had revenues that exceeded expenses. No program in Divisions II or III had revenue exceeding expenditure. There are 1,102 Division I, II and III schools.

Sports programs do not necessarily benefit student-athletes. Recent court cases have focused on how the profitability of sports programs can violate the rights of student-athletes. In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in NCAA v. Alston et al. that the NCAA couldn’t prevent student-athletes from being paid. In O’Bannon v. NCAA court ruled in favor of O’Bannon regarding the commercial use of a student-athlete image. There are also cases where student-athletes have not received the promised education. A 2017 report on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill detailed a decades-long practice of providing bogus courses to student-athletes.

In these and other cases, student-athletes are seen as cost-effective tools and exist to serve the institution. Monetizing the skills and talents of students is problematic for many reasons, both legal and ethical. Cost-effectiveness may not be the best way for an institution to determine if a sports program exists. Perhaps there are other ways of approaching the reader’s question.

If most programs are not cost effective, and profitability can come at the expense of student-athletes and non-athletes, how do institutions assess the cost of sports programs against their value? Many institutions highlight benefits such as access to education for students, student development, extracurricular support, a marketing tool for enrollment, and an engagement tool for alumni and friends. But do these benefits apply to all sports programs of all institutions at large? No, because institutions vary in size, scope, purpose and capacity.

  • Access to education. According to the NCAA, about 180,000 of the 460,000 student athletes have received $ 3.6 billion in scholarships. It looks awesome. But how does that compare to the non-athletic student? Individual institutions should analyze whether student athletes disproportionately benefit from non-student athletes in terms of access. Who does it benefit from? “College Sport Is Positive Action For Rich White Students,” By Saahil Desai, Posted by Atlantic on October 23, 2018, presents a point of view worth considering.
  • Extracurricular opportunities. Numerous studies illustrate the benefits of student participation in extracurricular activities, including an increased likelihood of academic success and the positive effects on character and social development. Track and field is just one type of extracurricular activity. Institutions should ask how many students are served by athletic programs, including student athletes and student spectators, and how much this costs per student. How do these numbers compare to other extracurricular activities? It may be surprising to find that other activities engage more students for less money and would provide greater value if invested more adequately.
  • Extracurricular programs. Athletic programs can be an essential training ground for academic disciplines, including sports medicine, sports management, physiotherapy, kinesiology, and engineering. So the question for an individual institution is whether the athletics program is formally linked to university departments and what is the value for non-athletic students? Does it present practical learning opportunities useful for student success? How many students benefit from it? Is support given to these disciplines in terms of faculty and teaching?
  • A marketing tool for registration. There are many things that need to line up for an institution’s registrations to benefit from athletic programs. Each institution must ask itself, what is the best return on investment for this institution? Should an institution invest millions in sports programs on the promise of a winning season or media airtime? Return on investment might be a better bet for some establishments if the focus was on other enrollment strategies. Brittany Renee Mayes and Emily Giambalvo wrote an interesting article for The Washington Post December 6, 2018, “Does the glory of sport create a spike in university applications?” This is not a slam dunk.
  • Engagement of former students and friends. The purpose of engaging with alumni and friends is to encourage philanthropic giving. Does your facility have the data to determine whether participating in or viewing sports competitions is related to giving, not just to sport, but to school in general? What percentage of athletics support comes from charitable donations? Without data from your institution, the benefit of engagement via athletics remains theoretical. Institutions should be wary of very vocal individuals or groups who may represent a minority position and who use hyperbole to influence decisions about sports programming due to the possible impact on donations.

Beyond the benefits, some institutions avoid cutting sports programs because of the associated risks. The elimination of the programs severely affects some students and employees and often sparks controversy, protests and court challenges. However, the effects of COVID-19 on institutional budgets have pushed the problem to the fore in unprecedented ways. According to a 2020 report from ESPN, between March 11 and November 6, 2020, 352 NCAA teams were removed from colleges and universities. They presented a perspective on why the trend was of concern.

On the other hand, The New York Times proposed this essay by Tom Farrey on October 13, 2020 on the subject: “Colleges cut varsity sports. It could be a good thing.


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