Another college basketball season has come and gone, as has another football season. I didn’t watch the NCAA National Championship game but did see the last couple of exciting minutes. As always, basketball is fun to watch as is football. But I also read an article in the National Review Online that caught my eye, mainly because it resonated with what I have been saying for twenty years. Now some readers won’t like what I am about to say, but I am compelled.
The current system of major college athletics is broken badly. It fails the “student-athletes” and sucks money from taxpayers at the same time. Here’s why. First, it is a sham to say that most major programs really provide an education to their athletes. In reality they are recruited for their athletic prowess and then steered into easy, sometimes, “fake” classes to keep them eligible. The bachelor’s degree is therefore degraded as is the actual knowledge attained, assuming the athlete remains in college four years. In addition, though the athlete generates millions of dollars in revenue for the university in sales of paraphernalia, TV time, etc., the athlete gets a mere fraction of that, and is even prohibited from benefiting form most anything he adds value to. Some will say, that keeps them as amateurs, but who really believes that this is even a goal today. The major college athletic machine is just a professional system in disguise.
Besides that, state taxpayers are called on to fork over millions of dollars to build new stadia and basketball arenas roughly every 30-40 years. If you haven’t checked out the cost of a football stadium lately, let’s say one that seats 60,000 to 80,000 with skyboxes (luxury suites for big donors) and other amenities, it runs into the hundreds of millions. The taxpayer is asked to back the bonds sold to build these monstrosities and if the repayment gets a bit slow, the same taxpayer is on the hook. And then he can’t even afford to go to a game. If it isn’t the taxpayer, it is the student who pays activity fees—involuntarily—to fund athletics that he/she do not actually get to attend because so much of the seating is reserved for those who donate big money (I know this first-hand, as one of alma matri is West Virginia University, a big-time power in basketball and sometimes football).
The counter-argument is that when games are played at the venues, millions of dollars are spent in good old college town and that helps everyone. But this argument has been shown by economists to be false. There are few games to begin with, and even then revenues to business are not all that high as predicted (this has been well-documented by economists). Oh, and even so, the universities push for more and even bigger facilities—the escalation of athletics.
And back to the revenues the universities get from sales of everything. It goes to the college—not back into the state coffers for taxpayers. It can be used to fund even more lavish practice facilities for example. It is now all the rage to build indoor football practice facilities. I thought football was played outdoors, but I guess I am not sensitive enough to the cold and rain faced by football players when practicing. Oh well. And some of that money just goes back to the general university to fund more, sometimes ridiculous, programs, like more administrators.
All the while the athlete is lulled into a false sense of security that this is his ticket to the pros. We know—and colleges know—that only a tiny fraction of college players will make it. But that doesn’t stop the false advertisement.
The solution? This is radical. Pay the players, disconnect the athletic programs from the universities and make them semi-professional club teams. They could still keep the name of the university, but they would not receive any kind of subsidy from the taxpayers. Pay for everything through revenue generated by ticket sales, sales of other items, and private donations. Also, allow the players to go to school, using their own money—which should be in greater supply now that they are paid. It’s time for universities to get back to their primary mission. Or we could just keep the cronyism in place. I prefer the former.