The marriage between intercollegiate athletics and higher education way back in the 19th century was a shotgun wedding. Colleges during this era sternly operated under the idea of in loco parentis. Faculty and administrators saw their students missing class time and coming back to the campus severely injured. The solution was for universities themselves to organize intercollegiate sports in a way to minimize the unrefined and dangerous aspects of early college sports. This, among other things, led to the creation of the NCAA.
There is nothing natural linking highly organized intercollegiate athletics and higher education. In fact, higher education in the United States was several decades old before intercollegiate athletics was even a factor. Many international universities do not organize intercollegiate athletics even though some of their students participate in competitive organized sports. The relationship between athletics and education was hardly a match made in heaven. Instead, it was a relationship created to minimize the danger, real and perceived, facing the "children" of the university.
History would be quite different if universities organized sports just for true students who came to college for non-athletic reasons. However, universities found out quite early on just how popular and powerful athletics are. Universities wanted to win. Big name universities wanted to win to maintain their elite status; lesser known universities wanted to win in order to establish their brand name. Because of this, universities started recruiting athletes no matter how academically prepared they were. Universities wanted to monopolize all the talent. The athletes, then and now, see this as being a good deal for them. The university builds the team, facilities, and hires coaches through their deep pockets. Oh, and the athlete may even get an education!
Although it may seem like a good deal, the monopolization of young adult sports by the educational system is flawed. The main problem is that the universities generally do not care about sport for the sake of sport even though they are so quick to push the amateur ideal. Universities create and maintain sports teams for other reasons. Directly speaking, profitability isn't a reason because college sports do not generate a profit. In a highly competitive enterprise like college sports, all revenue earned must be spent again to maintain and improve competitiveness. This is why the revenue sports aren't profitable sports.
College sports can increase fundraising, but there is evidence that the money gained through athletics just goes back to athletics where it is spent to gain a competitive edge. On top of that, there is evidence that athletic donations take away from academic donations, but administrators are so eager to get their hands on money that they would never risk losing a donation by questioning the donor's first impulse.
There are reasons why universities remain wed to sports aside from direct money benefits. For one, there is a belief that sports are a great marketing tool. This theory has considerable face value, but research indicates this may not be as significant as it may seem. Also, smaller schools see value in sports because they directly and indirectly boost enrollment. It is not uncommon for an athlete to choose or consider a college solely based on athletics. If an athlete chooses an unusual college, they may promote that college to their friends and relatives. Perhaps the biggest factor is that promoting sports prevents pro-sports board members, alumni, citizens, and politicians from sacking the administration.
Aside from the enrollment boost, all of these factors are relevant to revenue sports. Non-revenue sports have fans and alumni who donate, but obviously the teams with the most fans are going to get the greater share of the interest. There is little pressure for a winning water polo team, but there is usually great pressure for winning football and men's basketball teams.
This has led to a situation where universities are cutting off support to lower profile sports in order to maximize support for bigger sports. Universities will have to keep a minimum number of teams to satisfy division and Title IX requirements, but schools are increasingly decreasing their number of teams towards the minimum. It could be looked at this way. Schools have a choice of keeping their private jets in the skies in order to recruit academically deficient football or basketball players who may happen to have criminal backgrounds, or they can operate non-revenue sports teams that are comprised of more academically focused students. Even if the football team loses more money than several non-revenue sports combined, which is often the case, the non-revenue sports will be cut rather than risking harm to the revenue sports.
Logic would dictate that women's sports would stand to gain ground if men's sports, particularly football, are supported. Arguably, this is not the case. Schools are looking to find the cheapest ways to stay Title IX compliant. The so-called Olympic women's sports may be cut in the future for operationally cheaper sports like bowling and competitive cheerleading. These may be fine sports, but the only reason why they are on campus is their low cost. Football does not exist at most schools because of economics. Instead, it exists because it keeps very important people happy.
Although the universities may tell them otherwise, life is not so pleasant for non-revenue athletes who have to worry about their careers, athletic and academic, coming to a screeching halt. This is doubly so for men's non-revenue athletes because of Title IX and the reluctance of schools to de-emphasize football and men's basketball. Life isn't so great for all the football and basketball players either. The NBA and NFL have age restrictions in place to minimize the risk of a draft mistake and to minimize scouting expenses. However, colleges have a near monopoly in young adult sports forcing them to participate in amateur sports that are not amateur in any way aside from the player's salaries.
The best solution to this problem is for sports and education to divorce each other. The two sides do not need each other. Non-university sporting leagues are more than capable of protecting their athletes and organizing events. In fact, non-university teams could, especially in non-revenue sports, thrive because they are free to promote their sports because they actually care about their sports instead of using them as necessary add-ons. Funding these sporting leagues is difficult without university subsidization, but it is certainly possible if the clubs are able to connect their sports, fitness expertise, and facilities with their local communities.
The missions of higher education, teaching, research, and learning, would not suffer one bit if schools stopped organizing athletics. Universities may have thought that they could prevent the spread of unrefined behavior by organizing sports themselves, but they have proven to be negligent in promoting positive academic and social behavior. It is one thing for students to take their studies lightly on their own volition, but it is very sad to see universities lower standards to the point of blatant cheating just to win a sporting event.
Although athletics and education can operate just fine without being joined at the hip, it is important for these two important social structures to work together. Local sports clubs should work with universities to provide scholarships for athletes while promoting the local universities to the athletes. If possible, one college or university should not monopolize a sports club in order to promote multiple educational options. Local sports clubs should promote their facilities and expertise on campuses for intramural sports and general fitness. This system of connectedness will help sporting clubs and leagues to exist financially on their own and will help route academically mature students to local colleges and universities without lowering academic standards.
Athletics and education can be very beneficial to each other, but only if they operate independently. Over a hundred years of evidence shows that the marriage between athletics and higher education has served to limit athletics while lowering academic standards. A new paradigm could, on the other hand, bring out the best in athletics and in education.
Ashlen Dube operates the Other Side Sports website. Other Side Sports is dedicated to studying the interaction of sports and education. Visitors of all experience levels are encouraged to contribute their opinions on the new Other Side Sports forum.