Imagine college athletics existed for the benefit of students

May 10, 2021

For more than a decade, I’ve been convinced that big-time college sports and the NCAA are a predatory racket and we’d all be better off if the entire system was dynamited. “Big-time” is doing a lot of work in that statement, since I also believe organized, sponsored sports can serve a valuable purpose for students. The key, of course, is that if a university’s sports programs were truly oriented to serve students then they wouldn’t look like most Division-I schools’.

Every time I read about how these athletic departments are run, it’s clear that they don’t exist for the direct benefit of athletes or other students. Take this recent New York Times article about the athletics program at UC Berkeley. It specifically refers to the NCAA’s “anachronistic notion of amateurism,” which is about as edgy as it gets, but beyond that one reference, once you take in the entire picture there’s a gaping hole that remains unaddressed: Why go to all this trouble?

The NYT story is part of a series looking at Cal’s athletic department in the time of coronavirus, and those other pieces also sidle up to plainly addressing the key question, but don’t do much in the way of articulating what benefits athletes and other students derive from Power 5 athletics continuing during a major international health crisis. A December piece after the end of Cal’s aborted football season did include this, from Athletic Director Jim Knowlton:

Once Cal was home in California, this weekend’s planned game against 0-5 Arizona was called off, too. Both teams had virus-isolation issues. And, really, what was the point?

It was a question that reasonably might have been asked all along.

“I absolutely think it was worth it,” Knowlton said of Cal’s four-game football season. “Being part of a team is special, the life lessons you learn are special, and what we were able to provide our young men during an abbreviated season was a little bit of special.”

I guess sports teams are special.

My affirmative argument in favor of universities formally sponsoring athletics is that it can track with the justifications for sponsoring any non-academic activities. Most schools have an interest in fostering communities that value the whole person. Therefore, it’s good to offer appropriate levels of sports for wide swathes of the student population where there’s demand: beginners classes, intramural leagues, open play, and even intercollegiate competition.

However, Division-I athletics departments tend to see their missions through a straightforward capitalist lens with the sports as spectator products with various levels of potential audience and not as a service the school provides students that are among the amenities that make it more attractive as a community. Again, just look at how the NYT frames Cal’s problems. There are budget issues, and fears that Cal might drop certain sports teams, but the story relates these as if a corporation is looking to streamline its business and rein in spending in the face of a revenue shortfall rather than a loss of beloved extracurricular activities.

In the best possible light, Knowlton is working with the only paradigm he’s allowed. Even a school like Cal, which isn’t in a college football hotbed, still draws enough interest in football that potential revenues from that one sport have major implications for the rest of the teams the university offers, so it’s understandable that the school would go along with the standard Division-I model. Never mind that Division-III exists as a model that accommodates fan bases of various interest levels without athletic scholarships. Never mind that the club model of youth athletic development exists around the world. And never mind that the Division-I Ivy League shut down all sports out of an abundance of caution because (even keeping in mind all their faults) their default position is that athletics aren’t any more special than other activities at the school.

Without weighing in on the wisdom of fully cancelling all sports activities, even outdoor ones, at institutions blessed with fantastic wealth after evidence had mounted that certain sports’ practices and games can be conducted safely with proper precautions, the main takeaway from the Ivy League’s decision is that it’s possible for schools to orient their athletics priorities differently.

If Cal’s athletics really were primarily for the benefit of students and not ultimately the enrichment of coaches and administrators*, the school’s entire approach would have been different. It wouldn’t have hinged on maximizing revenue. Athletes’ choice to participate would be completely optional, with no accompanying leverage that affects the rest of their lives at the school. And administrators wouldn’t have to dance around presenting a clear, unambiguous answer for the department’s purpose at an institution of higher learning.

*I can hear the cries: “But what about the small sports with part-time coaches?!” Remember: even the small sports at big schools pay coaches pretty well. Assistant coaches may not get paid much, but the head coach of Cal’s women’s lacrosse team was paid $80,000 for 2019, the head of the men’s golf team was paid $112,000 that year, and the men’s water polo head coach received $125,000 in regular salary. That’s not making them wealthy by Bay Area standards, but the median household income in Berkeley in 2019 was $95,000 and in Oakland it was $82,000, so they’re making a comfortable living. In any event, it’s making a career off an exploitative system.

(Photo: “Cal Women's Swim” by Ariel Hayat. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)