Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Big-Time Athletics and the Funding of Higher Ed

Some informal reflections on the dynamics of money and college athletics. No details here, just a general sketch.

I don't really know when college and university sports became big business, but I'd think the impetus was TV money. TV exposure, in turn, propelled traditional college sports rivalries into the national spotlight as entertainment for all. Thus a significant segment of college athletics became part of the entertainment business and operated outside or at least beside the normal institutional dynamics of colleges and universities.

I did my graduate work at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. When SUNY took over the University of Buffalo (UB) in the late 1960s it did so with the intention of turning it into "the Berkeley of the East." The English Department was, for whatever reason, one of the first to be targeted for significant upgrading, which it had achieved by the time I got there. That's why I went, following a newly established 'pipeline' between Johns Hopkins (my undergraduate school) and UB.

However, things were also heading into decline when I arrived at SUNYB in Fall of 1973. The student riots a couple of years earlier had panicked the local worthies and they put the brakes on SUNYB's rise to academic greatness. Still, it took awhile for the English Deaprtment to loose its luster.

Anyhow, either at the very end of my years there or, more likely, some time later, SUNYB started discussing whether or not it should beef up its football program, which had been nothing special. In fact, it may have been on a multi-year losing streak, I forget the details. The logic of that discussion was simple:
  • a good football team generates school spirit
  • school spirit generates alumni loyalty
  • and loyal alumni shower their beloved alma mater with $$$$
But UB didn't hire a Joe Paterno. I don't really know how that plan went, though, of course, I am aware to the funding nonsense that's recently been going on in the SUNY system as a whole.

Thus big-time athletics functions as a funding mechanism for higher education. Just how the funds generated actually work in the school budget, I don't know. My guess is that they mostly support the big-time athletics that generated them in the first place, which means that its not much of a funding mechanism at all. It just creates public visibility that has nothing to do with education or with research. In the case of Penn State, Paterno himself was genuinely interested in the school's educational mission and he put his own funds and fund-raising energy into academic endeavors. But that's not the norm for big-time football coaches.

Now, think of the Ivies and would-be Ivies (like Johns Hopkins). They take a measured stance on big-time athletics. They DO understand and support the notion of atheletics generating school spirit, but they're cagey about it. In the case of good old JHU, football wasn't much of a thing. But lacrosse, THAT's another matter. And when I was there men's fencing was a big deal. Among the Ivies proper, well, they've got their traditional football rivalvies, etc.

But the general line is that these schools want student athletes and that's more or less what they do get. More or less. But they can afford to do this because they don't need the TV exposure to generate money and interest in the school. They've got history and old money in the endowments. They've got their own brand of elite status to generate institutional loyalty. And, though their elite alumni etc, they've got good access to government research funding, etc.

It's an odd system.

At places like the large state universities we've got what is, for all intents and purposes, a professional athletic program flying under a schools' flag. The atheletes are poorly paid and may or may not end us with a viable education. A very few get a shot at professional athletics, but only a few. The schools students get a team to root for and, who knows, maybe the school does reap financial benefits from sports-fueled alumni loyalty.

And these are the schools whose educational mission is most threatened by online education. The well-endowed Ivies and their non-Ivy peers will survive the growth of online education. The state schools are another matter. What's an intercollegiate athletic program to students who aren't even on campus?

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