Doug Robinson: Colleges should focus on education, not sports

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 7:39 p.m. MDT

Apparently, you are a sports fan. Otherwise, you'd be in the A Section reading about the Affordable Care Act and immigration instead of back here in the D Section studying batting averages and RBIs. So this is probably not a question you want to consider:

Are college sports a luxury we can afford?

Look, this country is sticking it to students every way they turn these days. Tuition costs rise almost annually. The college textbook business is a legalized scam. Congress recently came within days of doubling interest rates on student loans, but put it off — for one year. Room and board costs have soared.

Given the high cost of an education and the downturn in the economy and the arms race that is going on in college athletics, why are universities in the business of big-time sports?

Since when are universities supposed to be the minor leagues for the pros?

Where does it say the mission of a university is to produce championship sports teams?

Have universities lost their way when they're building $100 million sports facilities and making the coach the highest paid employee on campus?

More to the point: When did students sign on to help foot the bill for sports teams?

According to College Board, the cost of a four-year education at public colleges and universities over the last decade has jumped by 72 percent when adjusted for inflation. The Washington Post recently reported, "Between 1982 and 2007, tuition and fees increased 439 percent while the median family income rose 147 percent. … The price of in-state tuition at a public university has increased by more than 5 percent annually in the past 10 years. It jumped 15 percent between 2008 and 2010 alone."

And still it isn't enough. Universities charge fees to cover additional costs of running a university. Most of those fees are used to run the athletic department, which provides students tickets to attend games "free" or at a discount, whether they want to go to the games or not. Many of the schools do not itemize where the student fees are spent. They don't want you to know.

USA Today reported, "Students were charged more than $795 million to support sports programs at 222 Division I public schools during the 2008-09 school year … Adjusting for inflation, that's an 18% jump since 2005, making athletics funding at public schools a key force in the rapidly escalating cost of higher education."

If you're a college student holding down a job between classes and taking out a loan so you can get a college education, do you really want to pay student fees that fund games?

An NCAA report revealed that only 14 of 120 Division 1-A athletic departments made a profit. USA Today published a report detailing the revenues and expenses of the NCAA's 227 D-1 public schools from 2006 to 2011. Almost all operate in the red and are subsidized by student fees, taxes and other sources. At Wyoming, 50 percent of the athletic department is subsidized; at Washington State it's 28.8 percent; North Carolina 11 percent; New Mexico 41 percent; Colorado 25.5 percent. As for local public schools: University of Utah 24.6 percent; Utah State and Weber State 64 percent; Utah Valley University 89 percent; Southern Utah 78 percent. BCS schools of course require the smallest subsidies.

According to the website "Business of College Sports," (businessofcollegesports.com) football and basketball programs turn profits, but not as many as you think — 62 of the 120 Division 1-A football teams, and 64 of the 345 Division 1 basketball teams.

The economy and the demands of Title IX — a well-meaning law that has spiraled out of control in the hands of the federal government — have further strained athletic department budgets.

Now universities are engaging in an arms race, building new facilities to compete with their rivals and woo recruits. Since 2009, Indiana has made annual improvements in football facilities at a cost of $50 million. "It's a little bit like [the amusement park] Kings Island," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN. "Every year, you've got to have a new ride to show people you're serious." According to the ESPN report, several Big Ten schools are spending lavishly on updating stadiums and/or other football facilities — Nebraska $63.5 million, Wisconsin $86 million, Iowa $57 million (Michigan State and Ohio State are building new multi-million scoreboards, as well).

Where did it all go wrong? Probably when American schools decided to field their own teams rather than leave that business to clubs, as the Europeans do. Then TV got hold of college sports with its billions of dollars and things escalated from there.

Why don't universities get back to basics and return to the business of educating students?

Turn sports over to a club system and let universities get on with the business of education. Why make athletes be student-athletes who only want to be athletes? That's like telling the math major he has to play football. Given the many NCAA scandals that have been uncovered recently at universities, the school system isn't working anyway.

Or: Why not force the NBA and NFL to provide financial support to their college farm system? Either that, or the NFL can form its own minor league, like Major League Baseball and the NBA. Professional football and, to a lesser extent, professional basketball, would starve without universities to develop their talent.

For now, it's only the students who are starving.

email: drob@desnews.com

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