Inside Higher Ed

It’s Long Past Time to Rethink College Sports

For many schools, the math of becoming competitive doesn’t add up.

Nigel Hayes
Nigel Hayes looks to pass the ball during a game against Minnesota on Feb. 21, 2015, at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

USA Today Sports/Reuters

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Nigel Hayes, star forward on the University of Wisconsin basketball team, is my favorite collegiate athlete.

Hayes perhaps first stole the affections of me and others during last year’s NCAA Tournament when he and several teammates became fascinated with the stenographers attached to the press pool who produce the “rush” transcripts of all postgame commentary. In a challenge to the stenographers’ skill, Hayes started his response to a question about how he’s improved his play by saying, “Well, before I answer that question, I’d like to say a few words: cattywampus, onomatopoeia, and antidisestablishmentarianism.”

In the midst of the most pressurized part of his season, Hayes was determined to have fun, and show off a better than college-level vocabulary to boot. This past weekend, Hayes was having more fun while seeking to prove a point, walking through an ESPN College GameDay broadcast with a sign meant to draw attention to the disparity between the treatment of scholarship athletes and the increasingly large amounts of revenue the efforts of these athletes generate.

Later, in a series of tweets, Hayes pointed toward the 33 percent increase in revenue realized by the Big Ten for the most recent fiscal year, up to a total of nearly $450 million. The Big Ten sends more than $30 million to its 11 longest-tenured members (the original Big Ten plus Penn State), while newbies Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers are on reduced portions.

I salute Hayes’ actions because I believe that colleges and universities should be centered on students, student-athletes among them, and protest, particularly one that so pointedly highlights the significant amounts of money flowing through big time athletics, is most welcome, even when we may disagree with the underlying message of the protest itself.

The only ways schools can become school-centered is for students themselves to collaborate in all aspects of the institution, and in this case, I also happen to agree with Hayes, so this one is a win-win in my book.

In our age of what appears to be permanent austerity for public institutions, Division I sports, most particularly football, are also becoming a permanent drain on many schools, not only despite these rising revenues, but because of them.

Writing last week, “Dean Dad” Matt Reed described the 78–0 shellacking of Rutgers by Michigan as a “game that shouldn’t have been played.” As rough as that loss was, I actually think Rutgers’ 24–7 loss to my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Illinois could be a greater embarrassment. The Illini’s only previous win came against Murray State.

It has cost more than their competitive dignity for Rutgers to join the Big Ten. Rutgers had been running massive athletics deficits during the quest to join the conference. The fiscal year 2015 subsidy of $23.8 million is a marked improvement over 2013’s $46.9 million. In theory, once Rutgers achieves a full share of Big Ten revenue, it may be breaking even.

Of course, to be even remotely competitive—and remember, it just got whacked by the next worst team—it’ll need to start spending: new stadium, new facilities, etc. Perhaps Rutgers can use UC–Berkeley as a model. In an effort to hang with the University of Oregons of the world, Berkely’s managed to saddle itself with debt service payments in the tens of millions of dollars per year, an amount greater than the entire athletics department budgets of nearly 100 of the institutions that compete in Division I sports.

Because there is so much money associated with the power conferences, the siren song of joining the big time is strong, but increasingly trying to compete at the highest levels of athletics is a losing proposition resulting in a very small group of haves (only 12 out of 231 programs had $0 in subsidies) and a very large group of have nots that not only hemorrhage money but rely on student funds to balance budgets.

Thirty percent of Division I programs are at least 75 percent subsidized and in many cases, much of this subsidy comes from student tuition. Dozens of schools could reduce tuition by 10 percent or more annually if they dropped these athletics subsidies mined from student money.

I am not saying we end collegiate sports, but as Nigel Hayes’ protest demonstrates, something is out of whack. Millions of dollars are coursing through collegiate athletics, and yet, the flow of that money seems to disadvantage more schools and individuals than it advantages.

Nigel Hayes illustrates this imbalance when it comes to student athletes. We should also be talking about what it’s doing to the rest of us.