Hail to the Victors! But Let’s Get the Victors Right.

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.

11 thoughts on “Hail to the Victors! But Let’s Get the Victors Right.”

  1. I agree with the general thrust of this article, and just being honest I don’t often find myself agreeing with you Dr. Clauson, we see the world very differently, and that’s okay. One thing I’ll add, I get the impression reading this article that the athletes make a tiny bit of money, which is false. I think it was just ambiguously worded. The only compensation they get is their education, which as you said is of questionable value.

    Also this might be my ignorance. I haven’t heard of cities paying for college sports stadiums, I don’t think I misunderstood you, so that’s probably just something I’m not aware of, that’s horrible if I understood right.

    1. The comment on cities was a slip. There I was referring unintentionally to professional teams. For universities it is state funding, unless the city has a stadium or venue used by the college team.

  2. I agree with the majority of the article, except with the breaking of sports from universities, for some kids, sports is their only way to get through college, due to the costs. I know that some will argue that kids can get tuition help from academics, but academic scholarships pale in comparison with scholarships athletes get.

    1. But if you’re earning a real salary from playing sports you could afford to pay for your own college

    2. But making money in the private sector is much more valuable. I see salaries for pro teams at over $100 million, and I would estimate that a large university booster group could raise enough (and sell enough) to pay well over $60,000 to $100,000 per year for each athlete.

  3. I agree with most of what was said here.

    One big problem you did not mention was that students and not really state taxpayers subsidize most of the cost of intercollegiate athletics. Even if they never attend one game, all students at some universities pay over $1000 PER SEMESTER in athletic fees.


    When it comes to taxpayers paying the bill for new stadiums, that is a problem in PRO sports, not really in college sports. I would add that this kind of corporate welfare is a BIG problem. Wealthy owners routinely it seems hit up locals for money while threatening to move teams to new cities, even though there is little evidence that such money adds all that much to the local economy.

    I would not turn colleges into semi-pro teams and pay players. Instead I would allow football players to be allowed to go to the pros right after high school (right now, they cannot, but basketball players can).

    Kobe Bryant can earn a degree even though he went pro after high school, and Shaq earned a doctorate slowly during his playing and announcing career. Going pro after high school, in other words, does not mean that a player cannot end up earning a degree.

  4. I have felt this way for so long. Players and taxpayers lose out on this deal. Pay the players and let them do what they want with their income. Universities are institutions of learning, but they forgo this when recruiting good players for their teams. It really doesn’t make sense and should be amended. (I love college sports, I just think the system is broken).

  5. I agree that this plan could work for major sports at a few major universities. But what about the majority of universities whose athletic programs do not make money, whether in D1, D2 or D3. Or what about the sports that do not generate much money. Someone who was originally going to go to a low-end D1 school for track will now have to pay fully out of his pocket for his tuition, because a his team will not make nearly enough money to support his tuition. This plan could help at the top, but it could also destroy the majority of college athletics, hurting more students than it helps.

    Along with that, for every athlete that generate money for his school, there are probably 5 who didn’t pan out but received a full scholarship regardless.

  6. I think this is a really interesting article. The addition of sport has added a lot of positive elements to the college experience, but it has also brought about a lot of negative things as well. I think it would be radical to completely separate sport from college, and I don’t think it will happen, at least not anytime soon. If sport were to be completely separated from school there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to go to college because they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Yes there is the chance they could be paid for playing for some semi-pro team, but those teams would not encourage them to go to college. There are so many logistics and issues with the removal of sport from colleges, that while I think it would be beneficial if it ever happened, I don’t see it actually happening.

  7. Would you suggest applying this to all collegiate sports, or just major ones? I also like the suggestion that high school football players be allowed to turn pro straight out of high school if they so desire. One final question, would you suggest some sort of salary cap to ensure that the schools with the most money aren’t able to gain the best players by paying them significantly higher salaries? I realize that this goes on already through better facilities and other benefits, but I think the problem could be increased if salaries are involved.

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