What Does It Mean To Win?
Big-time TV contracts, roaring crowds, and $100 million annual revenues are appealing to universities and their student-athletes. But are athletics programs still fulfilling the mission of higher education?
By Aaron W. Jaco, JO’07, AS’07
For centuries, colleges and universities have been beacons for young people to learn, find their passion, hone a craft, and mature into ethical leaders. The model of higher education is one that has traditionally been tailored to meet those needs—with the ultimate goal to create and instill knowledge, prepare global citizens for meaningful professional pursuits, and fulfill a social compact to serve the public good.
At the same time, thousands of students use their college years to participate in athletics, an endeavor that has long been thought to go hand-in-hand with academics. But developments in some sectors of intercollegiate athletics are bringing sport into conflict with the core mission of higher education. The addition of television contracts, video game sales, and other major licensing deals has transformed Division I athletics into a high-revenue business venture—fraught with added pressures, larger time commitments, and fiercer competition among student-athletes.
While the demands associated with participation increase, data show that the valuable lessons traditionally associated with athletic competition—including fair play, critical thinking, teamwork, and trust—are falling by the wayside. Off the playing field, institutional spending on coaches’ salaries and other expenses are increasing at a rate higher than spending on academics.
Confronted by these challenges and more, college and university leaders are working with athletics regulators and others to find a balance between commercialism and the core purpose of our colleges and universities.
The Southeastern Conference, the nation’s top-earning athletics conference, collected more than $1 billion in receipts in 2010.
The Big Ten Conference was right behind it with $905 million. Individually, several schools have consistently topped $100 million in annual revenues for the past five years or more.
Television contracts generate a large chunk of that revenue. In 2010, the NCAA reached a 14-year, $10.8 billion television rights deal for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. A new college football playoff, set to begin in 2014, is expected to raise another half-billion dollars. Those revenue sources are parsed out to member colleges and universities based on a variety of factors.
Altogether, television contracts and other marketing rights constituted nearly 20 percent of revenue for schools within the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the top level in college football, in 2010. Schools also earned cash directly from ticket sales (24 percent), donor contributions (22 percent), and other sources, including institutional/government support, student fees, and corporate sponsorship.
One byproduct of that money—and the competitive environment it promotes—is a higher standard for student-athlete performance. Competing in college sport can be a rigorous, full-time endeavor, and one that is taking more and more of a student-athlete’s time. The NCAA allows 20 hours of official practice per week, but games, travel, voluntary workouts, and other commitments can double the amount of time students spend on athletics.
In 2010, student-athletes in Division I and II men’s basketball, Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) football, and Division I baseball reported an increase in the time they spent every week on athletic pursuits compared with respondents in 2006.
Division I FBS football players practiced and competed the most: more than 43 hours a week while in-season. Division I baseball and FCS football players also reported an average time commitment in excess of 40 hours per week. In Division III, student-athletes reported spending at least 30 hours per week in-season on their sport.
Even when coaches exercise moderation in their practice regimens, university officials are faced with the fact that some students prioritize athletics above their work in the classroom. In 2011, a study by the NCAA showed that a majority of Division I student-athletes listed athletics participation as a more important factor than academic offerings in their college decision. This held true across all sports for student-athletes of both genders, not only for players on men’s marquee teams.
University officials must ensure that their students succeed academically while making sure not to stifle their athletic potential, says Gene Smith, athletic director at The Ohio State University.
“We have elite athletes who aspire to win championships and be the best they can be,” Smith says. “We want to make sure they also do what they’re supposed to do in the classroom.”
Degrees of success
A college degree is the most tangible culmination of higher education for most student-athletes—for the great majority, at least, who don’t go on to play professional sports. But does athletic participation make students more or less likely to graduate? The statistics paint a complicated picture, particularly in high-revenue sports at high-profile schools.
Federal graduation rates show that students who compete in Division I athletics are 2 percent more likely to earn a college degree than are nonathletes, according to data for students who entered college in 2005.
By the same measurement, black student-athletes are 10 percent more likely to graduate than black nonathletes, and the graduation boost is even higher for black female athletes—though in all cases they remain significantly less likely to graduate than their white counterparts.
The picture becomes more nuanced when segmented by sport. Students who participate in basketball and football are less likely to graduate than peers who participate in lower-profile sports at most Division I schools.
For example: A dozen men’s teams that competed in the 2010 NCAA tournament, or about one in five teams that took to the court, graduated fewer than 40 percent of their players, according to statistics released by the NCAA in October 2012.
That same year, five men’s teams in the NCAA tournament graduated 20 percent or fewer of their black players, and two teams graduated none of their black student-athletes who entered the program from 1999 through 2002, according to an editorial that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote for ESPN.com.
The College Sport Research Institute (CSRI) at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill used another model to compare Division I football players with full-time male students who did not participate in sports. The study found that football players are less likely to graduate at a majority of Division I schools. The CSRI found the highest discrepancy in graduation rates within the Pacific-12 (Pac-12), one of the nation’s top-earning athletic conferences, where football players graduated at a rate 27 percent lower than their full-time male counterparts. (The discrepancy was even higher when comparing black football players with the overall male student body.)
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group of higher education officials, journalists, and others with a stake in the future of college sports, has pushed for stricter NCAA standards to address disparities in academic outcomes among colleges and universities. Such regulations, the commission suggests, should carry financial rewards and consequences—because without the incentive of money, schools may sacrifice their focus on academics in pursuit of a competitive advantage and an extra buck.
“It’s difficult for an institution that is doing everything it can to keep athletics aligned with the university mission,” says Amy Perko, the Knight Commission’s executive director. “Because the reality is, you’re competing on the athletic field with your competitors, who may not adhere to those same standards.”
The academic performance at any given school tends to be influenced more by institutional priorities and culture than by revenues, says Jean Boyd, associate athletic director for student-athlete development at Arizona State University.
“You take a school like Northwestern or Duke or Stanford—those who have an academic identity that is historically firmly entrenched and long-lasting—and there I think you’ll find the best of both worlds: The money stream is high, and the academic performance is high as well,” Boyd says. “But there are situations on the other end, in which schools have vast monetary resources but a [graduation rate] that is relatively low. It probably has more to do with the culture there than with money.”
The basketball squad at Gonzaga University, a private Roman Catholic institution in Spokane, Wash., has appeared in the NCAA tournament every year since 1999, including six Sweet Sixteen finishes. The team has also graduated all but one of its men’s basketball players who completed NCAA eligibility at the university since 2000.
“It’s true that some [Division I teams] place higher emphasis on academics than others,” says Mike Roth, athletic director at Gonzaga. “But that’s an individual school’s prerogative. It doesn’t seem to harm our competitive edge, though I see how it could.”
For Gonzaga, athletics advance the university’s mission primarily by increasing visibility. The name recognition that results from ESPN appearances and the glow of athletics victories are powerful marketing tools that boost applications and allow the university to be more selective in its enrollment practices.
“There are many students out there who know us first because of our basketball program,” Roth says. “You literally can’t buy that kind of publicity.”
The impact of athletics success has varied, with research suggesting that application increases resulting from successful seasons tend to be temporary. Some college administrators believe that a consistently competitive athletics team substantially benefits admissions, while others have said that simply having Division I teams matters more than any one team’s success.
Lessons on the field
Most athletics officials, student-athletes, and fans would agree that sport provides an exceptional learning experience for participants—that coaches teach their students to develop critical thinking skills, to work as a team, and to perform under pressure. Those outcomes, among others, strike at the core mission of higher education by promoting career preparedness and receptiveness to learning.
On the other hand, a significant number of student-athletes today say they are not perceiving an institutional emphasis on other key values, which include ethics, honesty, and fairness. As competition heats up, do these values fall by the wayside?
In 2011, only 57 percent of Division I football players surveyed by the NCAA said they “strongly agree” with an assertion that “my head coach defines success not just by winning but by winning fairly.” Fewer than 50 percent of participants in men’s basketball, baseball, other men’s sports, and women’s basketball strongly agreed with the survey question.
Similarly, between 39 and 56 percent of Division I student-athletes strongly agreed with the assertion that “my head coach can be trusted.” Responses varied by gender, conference, and school. Between 61 and 77 percent of Division I athletes strongly agreed that academic honesty is highly valued at their institution, with the fewest number of football players saying they strongly agree.
As myriad elements continue to complicate the dynamic between higher-ed institutions and their athletics programs, NCAA officials and some schools are using new approaches to ensure that athletics remains a faithful extension of the university’s core mission—or at least serves a complementary function.
In 2011, the NCAA adopted a rule requiring schools to be on track to graduate at least 50 percent of its players in order to be eligible for postseason competition. The mandate, adopted 10 years after the Knight Commission first advocated for it, was more stringent than those recommended by some other proponents of athletics reform, including Education Secretary Duncan.
The NCAA also recently increased its minimum GPA for eligibility in Division I sport. Student-athletes must maintain a 2.3 GPA in certain core classes—up from the previous minimum GPA of 2.0—beginning with students in the graduating class of 2016.
A third development ties academic performance to financial revenue to an unprecedented extent. In 2012, officials who oversee a new college football playoff agreed to allocate nearly 10 percent of revenues from that event—projected to earn $470 million a year—to schools based on their academic performance. It’s the first time in college football history that schools will be directly financially rewarded for the results of their work in the classroom, according to Perko, of the Knight Commission.
Also last year, the NCAA reversed a rule that prohibited institutions from awarding multiyear scholarships to student-athletes. That rule, which stood for 40 years, gave some institutions the wiggle room to cut funding for students who underperformed on the playing field—making it more difficult, or impossible, for shunned student-athletes to afford to finish school. Officials hope the use of multiyear scholarships will allow more students to earn degrees.
Other NCAA regulations aim to keep students’ focus on their classes rather than on the prospect of professional sport. Student-athletes are prohibited from accepting payment, including gifts, for participation in athletics. Rules also preclude them from profiting from commercial use of their image or likeness. The NCAA’s regulations have also led some schools to monitor their students’ use of social media and even their checking accounts—though critics of these controversial measures maintain that athletics leaders are more concerned about protecting their own image than teaching students about ethical behavior and the importance of academics.
At Division I institutions, some athletics programs have begun allocating money toward academics. In September 2012, for example, Louisiana State University’s athletics department agreed to give more than $36 million over five years to the university in support of academic programs. Ohio State also capitalizes on its financial windfalls to enhance the school’s ability to provide educational opportunities for students.
“Our primary goal is to support the university,” says Smith, Ohio State athletic director. “We transferred $30 million to the university [in fiscal year 2010–2011]. We paid all our scholarship costs—$16 million—and transferred another $14 million to support other parts of the institution.”
On the other hand, most schools, including those with top-earning football programs, do not make a profit on their athletics programs. The costs associated with higher-profile competition, such as increasing coaches’ salaries and facility costs, have historically offset the increase in revenue.
A majority of schools subsidize their athletics programming with university dollars—which amplifies questions about the role of athletics in advancing the university’s core mission.
What is the purpose of college sport? Is it a springboard for promising young people to access a college education? To go pro? To learn life lessons that will prepare them for rewarding lives and careers?
Is it a vehicle to rally alumni support, to increase the visibility of the institution? And how does the changing financial foundation of athletics shift the way universities approach these questions? Do administrators, coaches, and student-athletes behave differently when there’s more at stake?
Whatever the future holds for intercollegiate athletics, one thing seems certain: The television deals, the money, and the crowds are here to stay. And so are the questions. As long as thousands of fans fill the stands at home games and bowl games, and pack into living rooms and restaurants to cheer their teams toward championships; as long as universities earn millions in revenue (and pay it back in millions to coaches); and as long as young men and women dream of competing and excelling at the highest level of their sports, there is certain to be continuing negotiation as schools seek a balance between the business of sport and the mission of higher education.