By Andrew McGregor
“Athletics, as it is conducted in many colleges today, is not even good for the handful,” University of Chicago President Robert M. Hutchins wrote in 1938. He worried about the overemphasis on sports in higher education and what the pressure for athletic profits meant for the welfare of students. “It has been held to be crass professionalism, all the more shameful because it masquerades as higher education,” he bemoaned. These concerns remain in 2020 as colleges continue to subordinate the health of their athletes behind their drive for athletic revenue.
Covid-19 has done little to change this behavior as many universities concerned about dwindling funds in the wake of the pandemic have included college football in their plans to reopen their campuses this fall. To many politicians and educational leaders, football is essential and the students, who populate the teams, are heroes in America’s quest for social and economic normalcy. Just Friday Texas Governor Greg Abbott all but promised that the sport would begin as scheduled with fans in stadiums.
ESPN recently emphasized the critical importance of the game, estimating a $4 billion loss if the 2020 football season were cancelled. Texas A&M University, for example, stands to lose the roughly $85 million it earned from ticket sales and donations linked to preferred seating last year. The relationship between university finances and sport is not new, however.
For generations football coaches and journalists have warned about the overemphasis of sport. In 1933, Glenn S. “Pop” Warner expressed the need for “Football’s New Deal” to alleviate the pressure on coaches to win big in order to fund campus improvement projects. He criticized big time sport as being “The Campus Santa Claus,” explaining that “in a number of institutions, football has actually been the means of paying at least part of the professors’ salaries.” He viewed this as a major problem because it pushed coaches and athletes into the uncomfortable position of having to win in order to satisfy the demand for revenue. It fostered a culture of athletic exploitation.
Amidst the economic catastrophe, Warner wondered if “the depression may have been the blessing in disguise,” inspiring colleges to rethink the place of college athletics. His thoughts echoed Howard Savage, who wrote in the 1929 Carnegie Report on American College Athletics that to many Americans “the ethical bearing of intercollegiate football contests and their scholastic aspect are of secondary importance to the winning of victories and financial success.” The financial crisis, they hoped, would provide the impetus to finally reflect and reorient their priorities.
The 2020 pandemic offers a similar moment. The call for the return of football with little regard for player safety demands that we once again consider the ethics of big-time collegiate athletics and their unsustainable spending habits. Should students, who only recently won the rights to profit of their likenesses, be forced to compete in order to buttress university finances?
This question is further complicated by the messy finances of athletic departments. Few generate profit thanks to inflated coaching and administrative salaries, ever expanding athletic facilities, and the need to fund non-revenue producing teams. Multimillionaire dollar television contracts line the pockets of top coaches like Dabo Swinney who earns $9.3 million per year while simultaneously advocating against athlete compensation.
Despite these astronomical salaries, most athletic programs feign poverty and rely on student fees and other subsidies to stay solvent. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, between 2011 and 2014 only 10 athletics departments gave back more money to their university than they received in support. Breaking even is often their goal rather than sharing their television royalties and gate receipts with the academic unit. Such a structure allows athletic departments to claim that they seldom make any money, further underscoring their need to for a 2020 season and their inability to pay players.
The careful accounting of big-time sports has created an untenable situation where athletic departments rely on universities to survive more than universities rely on sports. Programs that should be self-sustaining have become leaches, siphoning off the limited resources of increasingly underfunded educational institutions and adding to the substantial debt of college students today. Faced with the prospect of no in-person classes or the ticket and media revenues from college football, athletic leaders have begun to panic.
Rather than drastically reducing coaches’ salaries, university leaders see students and athletes alike as their saviors. Grasping for stability, they have announced the return of in-person instruction even without fully vetted safety procedures for social distancing or dorm accommodations. While some are reticent about fully opening campuses to the broad student population, athletics remain a priority.
The NCAA recently announced that college football and basketball teams could resume voluntary on-campus activities on June 1. While University of Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has called the timeline “ridiculous,” athletic conferences and colleges continue to inch towards a fall season. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby offered a slightly different schedule, hoping to have football teams on campus and practicing by mid-July.
Still, the question of how to deal with athletes and maintain safety for the sake of revenue is fraught with complications and contradictions. The California State University System has already announced primarily online instruction for the fall. Similarly, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel told the Wall Street Journal that he could not foresee a fall athletic season without in-person classes.
Yet, Fresno State University athletic director John David Wicker told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re still planning on bringing all of our student-athletes back to campus.” This creates a situation where unpaid students risk exposure in a unique educational setting that subverts the NCAA’s longstanding position on amateurism, which claims that athletes are normal students.
Bowlsby floated the idea of testing football players “every 2-3 days,” and each Power 5 conference has its own advisory board looking into the medical issues. Providing clean spaces to live, practice, and play as well as study is a key concern. Doing so while the United States’ Coronavirus death toll steadily climbs, nearly surpassing 100,000, appears like a misguided use of resources.
Money, however, persists as the primary objective of college administrators and athletic leaders. Ross Bjork, the athletic director at Texas A&M, fears losing his base of season ticket holders and the funds that comes with them. He admits, though, reduced attendance will likely be necessary. Ohio State’s Gene Smith suggested that they may have to limit their stadium’s seating capacity by one-half to one-fifth in order to operate safely.
Lost in these discussions is the student voice. Players, who the NCAA legally refers to as “student-athletes” in order to avoid paying workers compensation and other liabilities, have begun demanding more rights in recent years. Recent legal victories have eroded the NCAA’s power and called into question its status as a cartel, opening the door for athletes to exercise their bargaining power. The Covid-19 pandemic and the pressure of administrators to resume athletic competition presents an ideal moment for students to do what generations of coaches, journalists, and academics before them could not: to reconfigure college sport in a way that eliminates athletic exploitation and promotes the welfare of its participants.
As Savage wrote in his 1932 follow up to the Carnegie Report, “The propriety of using educational funds to produce professional players for league baseball and football apparently has not been publicly called into serious question.” Few besides Hutchings, who de-emphasized big-time football at the University of Chicago in 1938, took him seriously. Now, in the 2020 pandemic, it is finally time to do so. Otherwise we risk the continued safety of college athletes and the integrity of our universities.
Andrew McGregor is the founder and co-editor of this blog. He teaches history at Mountain View College in Dallas, TX.