College Sports Programs Don’t Deserve the Bad Rap They Routinely Receive

The knee-jerk criticism of college sports is based on flimsy evidence, argues Michael Tomasky.

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I rise in defense of the student-athlete. No, let me put it more bluntly: I rise in defense of allegedly corrupt big-time college sports. It’s NCAA tournament season, and every year around this time, and around the time of the college football bowl season, we can count on a few academics and others to pop up and lament the “myth” of the student-athlete and brandish their terrible swift swords against the whole business of big-time college athletics. I’m not here to say that everything is hunky-dory in that world. But the corruption is vastly overstated, and the pure hatred many people (I must say it, many of my fellow liberals) have of college athletics is wildly overblown and irrational and appears to me to be often based on stereotypes that a lot of these same people would find offensive in other contexts.

The current exhibit is this blog post by Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting on The New York Times philosophy blog called The Stone. Gutting doesn’t have much of a problem with the minor sports, but he clearly thinks the impact of the big-time sports on universities is corrosive: “The deeper harm, however, lies in the fact that, in the United States, there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism that undervalues intellectual culture and overvalues athletics. As a result, intellectual culture receives far less support than it should, and is generally regarded as at best the idiosyncratic interest of an eccentric minority. Athletics, by contrast, is more than generously funded and embraced as an essential part of our national life. When colleges, our main centers of intellectual culture, lower standards of academic excellence in order to increase standards of athletic excellence, they implicitly support the popular marginalization of the intellectual enterprise.”

I see you out there nodding your heads. But honestly—is this really true? I guess, in some places. But is academic achievement “the idiosyncratic interest of an eccentric minority” at the University of Michigan, or the Ohio State University, or the University of Texas, or UCLA or at least a couple of dozen other schools that are known for their athletic programs but also happen to be excellent schools? Consider the universities of the Association of American Universities, a prestige organization whose 61 member schools get into the AAU by invitation based on a “general recognition that a university is outstanding by reason of the excellence of its research and education programs.” Look at the list. Yeah, there’s Harvard, and Brandeis, and the University of Chicago. But there are Ohio State and Michigan and Iowa and Kansas and North Carolina and Maryland and Missouri and Penn State. They and many others in the AAU somehow manage to chew gum and walk at the same time.

But here’s where arguments like these, and Taylor Branch’s fire-raising diatribe in a recent Atlantic, really get me. One current that runs through attacks on major college sports is that football and basketball especially are shot through with corruption. Another is that the players are exploited in a system that amounts to a kind of serfdom. Both of these arguments are completely absurd.

There is corruption in major college sports. Duh. There’s corruption anywhere in human endeavor when billions of dollars are at stake, and some scandals are just hideous. But of the 120-odd Division I (I still can’t quite bring myself to say FBS) football schools, you can count the number of big scandals on one hand. Is that really a high incidence of disease? I wish the home-mortgage business had been, over these past few years, precisely as corrupt as college football. We’d never have had a financial meltdown. And unlike in the banking business, when college football coaches get caught in flagrante, they at least tend to lose their jobs (Jim Tressel, Butch Davis).

All right, being less corrupt than the banking sector may not be much to brag about. But I’d bet my, well, mortgage that if some academic really did a rigorous study of the incidence of serious corruption across a range of high-dollar pursuits, she or he would find college sports somewhere in the middle of the pack. Just because a few scandals are lurid and generate massive media attention does not mean they represent the whole field, and the existing evidence doesn’t support any such contention.

The supposed exploitation of the athletes is a worse canard. As is often pointed out by people on my side of this fence, they’re getting a free education, something that these days amounts even at many state universities to $80,000 or $100,000. And a lot of these young men—and women, by the way—would never have had a chance to go to college without athletics. Taking just tier-one football, 120-something schools award about 25 scholarships annually. That’s 3,000 kids a year. Let’s say 2,000 of them wouldn’t be going to college otherwise. Would opponents of big-time sports prefer that these young men, many of them poor and from rough neighborhoods and difficult backgrounds, go stock grocery shelves?

I think some of them would, because another complaint is that universities lower their standards to let these kids in. Undoubtedly this is sometimes true. But the overall numbers collected by the NCAA show that, if anything, the opposite is the case. Gutting links to an NCAA study that he says shows that football and basketball players have abysmal graduation rates. But as I read the study (actually a Power Point), I found many slides show just the opposite. Look at the chart at the top of page six. Six-year graduation rates for student-athletes, broken down by gender and race, are uniformly higher for student-athletes than for the overall student body. Black male student-athletes have a 50 percent graduation rate to 38 percent for black male students generally; white female student-athletes are better than nonathletes by 74 to 68 percent. And so on.

That athletes do better than their general-population equivalents does not surprise me. Because I myself went to a humble land-grant school, I happen to have known a pretty good number of football and basketball players in my day and since. They were mostly very decent men. Sure there were assholes. But I doubt athletes are assholes in any higher proportion than high-powered lawyers or finance people or politicians or movie stars or anyone else who works in the public eye. I’ve known a small number of professional athletes, too, and based on that admittedly limited experience, I’d say the same of them. Those of you who mostly knew football players in high school might be surprised to learn that the asshole quotient actually goes down as the stakes get higher, because at the high-school level, lots of jerky guys play football to be cool or get girls, while at the college and pro levels people are more serious about it and have to work hard and show extraordinary discipline to become truly great.

There are problems in big-time college sports. Probably the biggest one, to me, is that football and basketball should never cost their universities money. Gutting is correct to note this as a problem. In 2010, 68 of the 120 top football programs made money on football. Since football is the big moneymaker and is supposed to support the nonrevenue sports, those schools that lose money on football have little excuse and maybe should be playing at a lower level (fewer scholarships, less air travel). Ideally, athletics should give money back to academics, as does happen occasionally at the really flush schools, most notably and admirably the University of Florida.

I happily admit my biases. I grew up with college sports and I love them. But that doesn’t mean I’m making rationalizations. Quite the opposite. I think what I think here because I have seen lots of really good young men and women who did not get drunk or cheat on tests or commit sexual assault or make sensational headlines but who just went to class (well, as much as anyone) and graduated and represented their school on the field. People who don’t like sports are perfectly free to resent the psychic space they take up in our culture and on our campuses. But that hardly means the whole enterprise is corrupt.