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What’s AHEAD Commentary [Poll 4]

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Intercollegiate Athletics: An Important Component of Higher Education?

In our fourth What’s AHEAD poll, we focused on identifying Higher Education Trend-Spotters’ views of intercollegiate athletics. We invited three people to comment: Dr. Shaun Harper, Executive Director of Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, and two Penn GSE Alumni—Drs. Sue Wasiolek and Karen Weaver—both leading scholar-practitioners. 

Winning at the Expense of Equity in College Sports

Shaun R. Harper
Executive Director, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education
University of Pennsylvania


Last week, the University of Florida agreed to pay Jim McElwain $3.5 million annually over a six-year contract to coach its football team. McElwain still had time left on his contract at Colorado State University. But Florida wanted him badly – they believed he could help them win again (the Gators won national championships in 2006 and 2008; this season they were 6-5). In addition to paying him more money than its president, the University also agreed to pay Colorado State $3 million over six years to buy McElwain out of his contract. In my view, this level of spending exacerbates longstanding equity issues in big-time college sports. I will address four that are reflected in responses to this What’s AHEAD poll.

First, 70% of respondents agree that athletics are an important component of higher education. Clearly, administrators at Florida and other schools paying coaches such enormous sums of money think so, too. Between now and the end of McElwain’s contract, this public university will spend $24 million on one football coach. Wouldn’t that money be better spent on expanding college opportunity for the millions of Floridians who deserve access to the University, but cannot afford it?

Second, respondents rank the exploitation of student-athletes as the second-most-vexing issue confronting intercollegiate athletics. As two Penn GSE Ph.D. students and I show in our 2013 report, Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports, certain players are exploited more severely than their teammates. This is evidenced through Black men’s overrepresentation on revenue-generating sports teams and underrepresentation in the overall student body, as well as in alarming racial disparities in six-year graduation rates.

Third, respondents indicate benefits to student-athletes as the second-ranking reason colleges and universities have athletics programs. Benefits are undeniably inequitable – institutions surely benefit far more than students, especially those Black undergraduate men who disproportionately help major sports programs, athletic conferences, and the NCAA earn billions of dollars each year.

Finally, recent data from the American Association of University Women show widespread sex gaps in compensation. Many undergraduate women, as well as their coaches, fans, and administrators who oversee their sports, would likely agree with me that gender inequities of varying sorts are far more troublesome than most people realize.

As is the case at Florida, several big-time sports programs are willing to invest in winning. In my forthcoming book, Scandals in College Sports, several expert scholars furnish numerous compelling examples of ethical, policy, and legal violations, most of which were motivated by a desire to win. It’s clear to me that neither integrity nor equity is as important as winning at many institutions. 

Intercollegiate Athletics:  An Educational Endeavor, or the Search for a Pot of Gold?

Sue Wasiolek
Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students
Duke University 

When asked in April 2013 about the state of college athletics, Bill Snyder, head football coach at Kansas State said:

I think it’s in a bad place right now…We’ve allowed it to become money driven. We’ve allowed it to become TV driven. We’ve allowed athletic programs…to mean more to a university than what the university is really supposed to be all about.

Coach Snyder went on to say, “I’m grossly overpaid for what I do. That’s part of what creates the issue.”

These comments succinctly state the mess in which college athletics finds itself.  Decisions are made based on the almighty dollar and have little or no relationship to the overall mission of higher education. Why else would college football games be played on a Thursday night? The reality is that intercollegiate athletics has become an entertainment industry and television contracts dominate. The irony is that most “big-time” college sports programs do not make enough money to break even and require subsidies.

How could institutions of higher education have allowed athletic programs, even at highly selective and prestigious universities, to stray so far away from their core mission? Why have debates related to “pay for play,” investigations about non-existent classes and concerns about “one and done” dominated the conversation instead of focusing on graduation rates?

Is there any turning back? What follows are a few approaches that might bring college sports back in line with the mission and values of higher education:

  1. Don’t allow freshmen to compete. Wouldn’t these students benefit from a year of adjustment/transition to college? Such an approach, which used to be in effect, would certainly put an end to the “one and done” phenomenon. 
  2. Eliminate athletic scholarships. Treat students who wish to play a sport just like every other student; have them apply for financial aid and provide them with the level of aid that any other student exhibiting the same level of need would receive. 
  3. Realign coaches’ salaries. How can $2M, $5M, even $10M salaries to coaches be justified? Do these individuals truly enhance the institutional reputation that much? 

Many people might find these suggestions ineffective and unrealistic. Is that because they believe they will adversely impact the bottom line? Is there more concern about college sports providing entertainment for a mass audience instead of facilitating an education for the individual student-athletes? Is it all about the money?

Whether You’re Kentucky or Kentucky Wesleyan, Athletics Spending Keeps Rising

Karen Weaver
Interim Program Director/Associate Clinical Professor
Drexel University


Did you ever wonder why athletic spending is so out of control? It’s true that coaching salaries and facilities make up a fair portion of spending at larger schools. Since 2000, athletic revenues at the largest institutions have grown on average 9% a year, equaling or exceeding the spending. Despite the largest recession since the Great Depression, college football in particular has attracted revenue to athletic programs at an unprecedented rate, especially when compared to the decline in state support for public universities during that same time period.

But what’s driving the smaller schools’ budget increases? When the competition rules are set each season by the coaches associations, the voices dominating the discussion are typically the high profile Division I coaches. Very often, if they want a change in the equipment or playing rules, they can make it happen. A $2,000 modification in a basketball facility would seem like small potatoes to a Division I program, but to a small college program, that’s a significant expense. Multiply that by the number of sports in your athletic program and you can see how quickly this can add up. Technology and other advances have convinced coaches they can get a competitive edge with the latest gadget. The programs that have the most money to spend dictate decisions that drive up costs in all college athletic programs.

Coaches (and athletic directors) want to win. In order to attract the best recruits (who are already practicing year round), coaches have become masterful at lengthening their own college seasons. It is permissible for a Division I coach to require his or her team to practice up to six days a week, up to four hours a day, and up to 22 weeks a year at the Division I level—and the academic year is only 30 weeks long! This extended commitment requires more strength coaches, more athletic trainers, more assistant coaches and more videographers. It requires more facilities because teams can no longer share a facility with other teams unless they spill over into the traditional academic portion of the day. Even when a team is technically out of season, there are competitions scheduled. And, again, because the top programs have set the standard, even Division III non-scholarship programs have successfully lobbied to increase team activity to 18 weeks a year, just one month shy of their counterparts in Division I.

Out of control spending in intercollegiate athletics rightly concerns higher education leaders. Whether you are Kentucky or Kentucky Wesleyan, this untracked spending impacts your campus budgets. The real problem is the inability to say no and set limits—and that affects everybody.