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Are sports taking over some of our best universities?

The frenzy over Zion Williamson’s injury highlights just how much sports have become a dominant aspect of university life these days.
The frenzy over Zion Williamson’s injury highlights just how much sports have become a dominant aspect of university life these days. AP

As the media frenzy over the injury to Duke star Zion Williamson this week once again demonstrates, big-time college sports is a business. The truth is that scores of American universities operate the equivalent of minor league professional sports franchises. Until these universities acknowledge and own that reality, it won’t be possible to have an honest debate about whether big-time sports have become a threat to American preeminence in higher education.

Big-time college sports have been commercial for a long time, but skyrocketing revenue from football and basketball in the last 30 years has lifted athletics to a new level of influence within universities. One big reason is the advent of cable television. In 1983, viewers in a media market like Chicago had just two college football games to watch on an October Saturday. By 2016, that number had jumped to 30.

It’s little wonder that networks are eager to broadcast college sports. Games are cheap to produce (remember, the players play for free), and viewers put their DVRs aside, making them sitting ducks for ads during timeouts.

To reach more media markets, top conferences added new members. Now a network like Fox routinely reaches more than 3 million viewers for Big Ten football games. In basketball, ESPN drew 3.7 million last month for a game between Virginia and Duke. CBS reaches many more for March Madness.

Money from bowl games, tournaments and TV contracts, as much as $50 million a year per school, now is the biggest source of sport revenue for universities in the richest conferences.

This tsunami of revenue is fueling an arms race of spending on sports. It also appears to be reordering university priorities. One marker of the growing clout of athletics is the astounding rise in coaches’ salaries at public flagships. In 1986, the head football coaches at 44 public universities were paid 8 percent less than the presidents of those same universities, on average. Thirty years later, the coaches were making six times what the presidents earned.

More telling signs of the power of athletics to influence or distract university leaders are the scandals. At Maryland, a coaching scandal forced out the chair of the board of regents. At Penn State, Baylor and Michigan State, sexual abuse in athletics pushed out university presidents. A federal investigation recently uncovered a black market of cash payments to recruit top basketball prospects. And observers are still dumbfounded that the prestigious University of North Carolina had, for more than a decade, offered bogus courses that allowed hundreds of athletes to remain eligible.

It is true that academic excellence and spectator sports have coexisted for decades at some of our best universities. But our universities’ academic preeminence shouldn’t be taken for granted. For the second year in a row, the number of new international students enrolling in universities in the United States has dropped. And China is investing heavily in its universities, while public universities here are dealing with draconian cutbacks in state appropriations.

It’s not evil to have commercialized sports programs. But it is misguided to keep pretending they are nothing more than an inconsequential student activity. Such insincerity makes it too easy to leave decisions in the hands of boosters and athletic directors.

A good first step, one consistent with universities’ traditional commitment to truth, would be to add some mention of sports to their official mission statements. Only by owning this reality can universities start figuring out how to make sure all that new sports revenue doesn’t distract their leaders from the academic work for which they are held in such high esteem.

Charles Clotfelter is a professor of public policy at Duke University and author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities”. Email: charles.clotfelter@duke.edu
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