Viewpoints

Is athletics too big on campus?

Robert Morin was a frugal librarian who drove an old car, ate TV dinners and left $4 million to the University of New Hampshire.
Robert Morin was a frugal librarian who drove an old car, ate TV dinners and left $4 million to the University of New Hampshire. University of New Hampshire

Americans quickly flipped from touched admiration to growling resentment over the college librarian’s gift to his employer. Robert Morin, a frugal man who amassed a $4 million fortune, bequeathed it to his alma mater and longtime workplace, the University of New Hampshire, with just one requirement: At least $100,000 had to go to the library.

And that’s exactly how much went in that direction, while 10 times as much is being spent for an electronic football scoreboard. Morin purposely put no limits on how his bequest should be used, yet he was a librarian to the bone, a man who inhaled literature.

Of course, this isn’t all about one very expensive scoreboard. It’s a moment, one in which Americans are loudly voicing a concern that’s been building for years: Whether the heart of academia – teaching, study and research – has been overwhelmed by expensive devotion to athletics.

This is an especially important question as American families feel squeezed by college costs, and students compete to the max for spots at highly desired schools.

Despite the mantra that schools can’t reduce their athletic programs because they’re cash cows, most university athletic programs lose money, according to various sources including an article for the American Council on Education.

“Justifying institutional spending on athletics is becoming a much more pressing issue for most programs, especially in Division I,” wrote David Welch Suggs Jr., a journalism professor at the University of Georgia. “Institutions with Football Bowl Subdivision programs have seen subsidies of athletics rise by 53 percent at the median from 2005-2009, according to the Knight Commission. Meanwhile, spending on education and related functions rose only 22 percent.”

According to Suggs, “Most colleges subsidize their athletics programs, sometimes to startling degrees.”

At the same time, college admissions preferences for athletes narrow the number of spots available for academically gifted students, including high-achieving, low-income students.

A 2016 report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation cited figures from The New York Times that at Amherst College, 75 of 450 freshman spaces were reserved for recruited athletes, many to “wealthy, suburban, white students who play sports such as squash, sailing, crew and water polo.” It’s a rare public urban high school that offers fencing or lacrosse.

The report found that once admitted, recruited athletes “underperform academically, earning lower college grades than their high school grades and SAT/ACT scores would have predicted.”

That might be because the more professionalized, high-pressure world of college athletics drains so much of their time. I know of two recruited athletes at top universities who quit their sports last year as freshmen because they believed they were missing out on education and the college experience.

Top universities in most other countries – the ones with free or very low tuition – aren’t nearly as sports-obsessed, while some U.S. universities cancel classes during games so students can watch.

This isn’t about a call to eliminate college sports. Of course they play a role in campus life. But too much about colleges has gone extreme, and athletics is one area in which that’s increasingly true. It’s time for a tough re-examination of campus priorities. Me, I vote for learning.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com.

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