Recently, my university’s new president began his job by taking photos with our college baseball team. The images appeared on our website along with a headline that read something like “President So-and So’s First Week.” My campus doesn’t have a football team, so the other sports programs enjoy a pretty high profile. I immediately sent my friends here and elsewhere a bitchy tweet about what our new leader values most. After all, he didn’t take photos with the debate team, or with professors, or the chess team, or with our underpaid part-time teachers. (They barely make $2500 per course).
Wait. That’s not fair. I’m not sure we have a chess team.
I’m not stupid, though. I know why our prez took these pictures. He wants to show his commitment to our university, and what better way than associating himself with icons and symbols? A university’s mascot and sports teams are widely recognizable on any campus. Ideally, they do embody an institution’s values. The photos make our prez look like part of a team, and instantly lend him credibility and popularity by association.
Our team has done well. They train hard. They should be proud. I’m sure they were honored by our new prez standing next to them. Yuuuuge honor.
So why was I pissed off? I’ll tell you. While our new prez was posing with a bat on home base, he was also telling our faculty that we needed to reign in our wasteful spending and work harder to recruit more students. Until then, we would not be allowed to hire any more faculty.
It irritates me and most other professors when our department budgets are slashed further every year, we’re berated about enrollment numbers, and told that our occasional course releases for research and service are bankrupting the university. We’re told to do more with less, and yet our athletics and technology fees go up every year to cover games and high-speed wifi in the dorms that can support streaming.
In short, there’s a double standard at work in universities. Administrators—deans, assistant deans, vice chancellors, provosts, and so on—make as much as $200,000 at many public universities. College presidents and chancellors make twice that. Meanwhile my salary hovers in the low 60s, and I often feel like I have to justify my existence. I’m at the back of the line. And when I raise up my little bowl and ask my bosses, “Please sir, can I have some more,” they whack me with a report about retention.
Coaches are simply in a league of their own in terms of salaries. A list of NCAA coaches published in USA Today shows them making anywhere from $300,000 to $7 million.
You might feel the need to subtweet me at this point and write something like, “Bitch professor complains about football, forgets how much revenue they generate. Earn your own keep!” Is that 140 characters? Oh, who cares…
Here’s my answer: It’s simply not true that popular athletic programs like football “bring money into” universities. At best, successful athletics programs support themselves. At worst, they thrive on student fees. According to a study run by The Huffington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education, student fees provide more than $10 billion for sports nationwide. For example, student fees support 71 percent of the athletics budget at George State University.
Students pay anywhere from $50 to $300 in such fees. At Florida State University, they pay a $237 athletics fee. Don’t worry, though, they can attend Seminoles games for free. Recently, Clemson University planned to charge each student a $350 athletics fee. The students did not like that. Not one bit.
Meanwhile, I’m doing everything I can to reduce costs for students. This year I moved to open access materials, dropping my textbook costs down to zero. I do so because we live in a time where a college education leads many students into debt, and doesn’t necessarily guarantee them a job that will help them pay it off. No matter if you’re majoring in a STEM field, or French Feminist Cinema, or Russian Basket Weaving, you might accrue up to $35,000 in debt by the time you graduate.
Is this fair? As a columnist for The Washington Post points out, the sports industrial complexes at many universities “continue to take money from tens of thousands of students who will never set foot in stadiums or arenas.” So why should they pay for something they don’t use? This argument is no different from what we hear from our fiscally conservative friends on Capitol Hill.
Back in graduate school, I often reflected on why I paid $200 a semester for something that, more often than not, would simply clog up the streets with drunken drivers, make it hard to buy groceries on weekends, and generate a shit show of noise that would keep me from working on my thesis.
Those are my cranky moments. When I’m doing better, I realize that sports aren’t all bad. Believe it or not, I used to be a student athlete.
Sports serve a purpose in college. Many athletic program directors, athletes, and fans recognize the sense of community that sports bring to campus. I was never much of a football fan, but I enjoyed my time at a handful of games back in high school and college. I remember huddling with friends for warmth in the stands, the excitement of joining a crowd, the cheering, the music. The conversations, the kissing when nobody was looking. Yeah, baby.
Even more so, I gained character from my time as a student athlete. Running track and cross country taught me determination, discipline, and persistence in the face of failure. Those traits translated directly into every other aspect of my life and helped me through difficult times. Even today, my workouts are the cornerstone of my sanity. Everything else can go to shit, but I’m okay as long as I make it to the gym or the trail.
So my real problem isn’t that universities have sports programs. Not at all. I think more students should play a sport, even at the intramural level. The problem lies in the commodification of sports. The big hopes that they prop students up with sometimes. The negligent attitude they sometimes nurture. For example, I often heard assistant coaches at one school joking with his players, “Don’t study too hard now!” Once, I heard that on my way to the weight room and had a conversation with one assistant about why he thought that was funny. He just looked at me like I was half-insane, shrugged, and walked off.
Oh, if only I’d had a helmet and some shoulder pads. I would’ve tackled that asshole to the ground and made him eat his pissy little face. Not really. I deplore violence. You have to admit, though, great imagery here.
Here’s what else I dislike about the power athletics programs wield at many universities: The tendency of some schools, like University of North Carolina, to put athletics ahead of an education and then try to silence professors who contest such a culture. I also have a problem with the wide autonomy some colleges give their sports programs to “deal with” sexual assault cases.
Too often, administrators and even the general public think universities exist solely for the purpose of entertaining them through televised sports, through swag and other merchandise, through increasingly violent contact that keeps fans in front of the screens.
Many fans might think they’re loyal to this or that college, but are they? Do they really care what happens to the student athletes they watch on the field while chowing down on nachos and hot dogs? Certainly some fans do. But I’ll tell you this: Nobody will ever care more about these athletes’ futures than their professors. We want them to get an education and to enjoy a career, whether in athletics or not, so that they can raise a family (if they want) and earn a decent quality of life. We’re willing to push them intellectually as hard as their coaches do physically. We don’t care if they like us much, as long as they pass our courses and learn.
Of course, some of the best students I’ve had have been athletes. I think they set an example for everyone else about the drive and dedication a sport can instill. On the other hand, some students have shared horror stories. One even told me his high school football coach would even pull him out of class to hit the weight room and run sprints on the field. That student was in for a rude awakening when he wound up in remedial courses his first year. In his papers, he often referenced the sense of betrayal he felt toward this coach. “He pumped me up with dreams about meeting talent scouts,” he told me. “Now here I am with no scholarships at all, paying out of pocket and hoping for a decent GPA” so he could eventually earn financial aid.
A handful of universities have actually eliminated their athletics fees, and their sports programs are doing fine. These schools include University of Alabama, Missouri, and Kansas State. I say let’s follow these examples. Make athletics programs a sustainable and integral part of the university, not a black hole sucking up resources and contributing to student debt.