ERIC Identifier: ED317102
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Thelin, John R. - Wiseman, Lawrence L.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.
The Old College Try. Balancing Academics and Athletics in
Higher Education. ERIC Digest.
A decade of highly publicized sports scandals at several major universities
has made intercollegiate athletics a serious matter that academic leaders can no
longer afford to ignore. Standard procedures and policies of intercollegiate
athletics often conflict with sound institutional planning. The most dangerous
game today in college sports is the financial strategy fragile. And along with
lack of financial control, many intercollegiate athletics programs are only
marginally connected to academic accountability.
WHAT ARE THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF COLLEGE SPORTS?
analysis of the relationship between sound business practices and the finances
of big-time intercollegiate athletics indicates that most budgets for athletics
programs show signs of precarious fiscal fitness. Over the past decade, an
alarming syndrome has evolved: a rich-get-richer pattern, with an increasing
number of major programs showing deficits. Despite large crowds and widespread
publicity, few athletics programs are self-supporting because rising expenses
continually jump ahead of revenues. And, athletics directors and coaches have
tended to vote against reforms that would contain costs. Television revenues
assist only a small number of institutions--with little prospect for increased
net revenues. Varsity sports programs that show deficits look to private
donations and mandatory student fees as strategies for balancing budgets,
usually through the mechanism of specially incorporated athletics foundations,
entities that tend to drift away from academic accountability.
Such practices move analysis from institutional finance to public policy. The
key finding of the research is that some standard procedures of big-time sports
programs jeopardize many privileges and exemptions colleges traditionally have
enjoyed as nonprofit educational organizations. Sports programs managed as
admittedly commercial enterprises tend to have government agencies looking at
athletics foundations more as entertainment than as education. Thus, athletics
foundations may have to forfeit exemptions from local property tax. second, the
IRS will increasingly scrutinize athletics foundations activities and expenses
to determine whether they should be exempt from federal income taxes.
WHY DO COLLEGE SPORTS PROGRAMS RESIST REFORM?
economic and policy problems, why do intercollegiate athletics programs resist
academic reform? Observers agree that the key figure in such reform is the
college or university president. Yet making decisive changes in athletics policy
is not easy for a president who must content with external pressures, problems
of a single campus working in isolation, and the visibility of college sports.
Presidents who take a stand as national leaders and spokespersons on containing
the costs and abuses of college sports show a high burnout rate. Above all, a
president must work within the boundaries of an institutions sports heritage.
Justification for big-time sports programs includes the claim that college
sports bring prestige, publicity, and donations that benefit the entire
institution--leading to spirited debates among social and political scientists
who have attempted to systematically test such claims.
Changing policy is complicated because many important actions and attempts at
reform take place beyond the campus. The really exciting contests in varsity
sports are taking place not on the playing fields but in the courts, in college
board rooms, at NCAA conventions, in presidents offices, and at television
network headquarters. Significant reform most likely will not come about until
standards for intercollegiate athletics programs are recognized as central to an
institutions mission--and hence subject to prominent scrutiny in regional
WHAT REFORM MEASURES CAN HELP ACHIEVE A PROPER BALANCE?
balance academics and athletics, reforms in the following areas are recommended:
* Institutional mission statement: intercollegiate sports are de facto
central--not peripheral--to a university's purpose, it should be so stated
forthrightly as a de jure dimension. It is no idle exercise if the mission
statement is used in substantive institutional evaluation, for example, in
* Regional accreditation standards: Standards could be revised so as to make
intercollegiate athletics a distinct category of total institutional self-study
rather than obscured as an adjunct to, say, student affairs. Thus, a university
that failed to comply with its self-determined standard for intercollegiate
athletics would jeopardize its accredited status for the entire institution.
* Collective solutions and self-regulation: The best strategies for a sound
policy regarding athletics involve cooperation among colleges and their
presidents. Advocates of a recurrent proposal to deregulate the business of
college sports invoke the principle of institutional self-determination,
suggesting that effective centralized and uniform regulation by a national body
is unlikely. But economic deregulation probably would lead to the financial
collapse of most varsity sports programs, even those in the NCAAs Division I. A
better solution than deregulation would be self-regulation. Although the
diversity of American higher education renders national policies unwieldy, the
conference has great potential for peer institutions to cooperate voluntarily
and with mutual respect. Foremost items for collective consideration should be
the reduction of expenses by such measures as reducing the number of permissible
athletic grants-in-aid and by making all grants-in-aid based on financial need.
* Internal taxation: Institutions with major revenue-producing athletics
programs should consider charging overhead expenses on each dollar of revenue or
philanthropy generated by intercollegiate athletics programs. Doing so would
formally ensure, as claimed by varsity sports advocates, that athletic fund
raising is for the benefit of the entire institution.
* Governance: While emphasizing the real and symbolic role of the campus
president in intercollegiate athletics, leadership can best be demonstrated by
selective and discriminating presidential involvement. Emphasis should be on
policy matters involving the presidents of other colleges and universities.
Institutions are therefore urged to make good use of campus administrative
expertise beyond the president, for example, depending on whether a college
chooses to emphasize the educational or the business dimension of varsity
sports, one might opt to have the athletics director report to the academic vice
president in the former case or to the vice president for business affairs in
* Public policy for nonprofit organizations: Intercollegiate athletics
programs that define themselves as a business and are incorporated as a
foundation distinct from the university should be prepared to have local
governments and the IRS treat them as commercial enterprises rather than as
nonprofit educational activities.
* Structure: Semiautonomous athletics foundations should be disbanded and
replaced with a departmental structure within institutional administrative and
financial control. Otherwise, athletics directors report to both an
institutional office and to a foundation board, thus diluting presidential and
Atwell, Robert H., Bruce Grimes, and
Donna A. Lopiano. 1980. THE MONEY GAME: FINANCING COLLEGIATE ATHLETICS.
Washington, D.C.; American Council on Education.
Chu, Donald, Jeffrey Segrave, and Beverly Becker, ed. 1985. SPORT AND HIGHER
EDUCATION. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics Publishers.
Frey, James H., ed. 1982. THE GOVERNANCE OF INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS. West
Point, N.Y.; Leisure Press.
Hart-Nibbrig, Nand, and Clement Cottingham. 1986. THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF
COLLEGE SPORTS.Lexington, Mass.; Lexington Books.
Lawrence, Paul H. 1987. UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT: THE NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION AND THE BUSINESS OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL. New York: Praeger Press.
Massengale, Marcy V., ed. and Harry A. Marmion, guest ed. 1979. "On
Intercollegiate Athletics." EDUCATIONAL RECORD. 60: (4).
National Collegiate Athletic Association. 1981. The EVALUATION OF
INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS: A Suggested Guide for the Process of Self-Study.
Mission, Kan.: Author.
This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report Series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education
in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and
published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.