These comments will surprise no likely reader, I admit in advance. They belabor the obvious. But sometimes it seems to me we need to dwell on the obvious in hopes that — despite all indications to the contrary — reality can be redone.
It’s long been clear that the position of sports in American higher education is anomalous, on its face and in any international comparison. When top coaches earn vastly more than anyone else on campus, there’s something out of whack. When college athletes get all sorts of special treatment, from tutoring on up, there’s something out of whack.
Now: I like sports. I watch them. I enjoy Mason sports and get duly excited. I know many of our student athletes and think they’re fine people, taking good advantage of educational as well as sports opportunities. So I’m not out to attack the whole apparatus. Nor, I should insist, am I primarily talking about my university at all, which has — comparatively speaking — usually handled athletics pretty well. We face a bit of problem spillover, but nothing like what’s affecting many other schools.
But nationwide, what has long been an anomaly is changing stripes, and becoming a positive menace.
The clash is clear. At the current time, academic operations broadly construed are under immense fiscal pressure, as state budgets have been slashed, with new pressures as well to hold tuition down. Not pleasant, but we can and must live with this situation at least for a while.
But the climate for college sports is immensely different. Huge sums have piled up in conferences and in the NCAA. Vast amounts of money, mainly apparently from private donors, are available to pay fines to conferences to facilitate departures to greener pastures. Television, and TV revenues, increasingly run the show.
The disparity is simply not right. Universities should be taking fuller control of the situation to reduce, if not eliminate, the trajectory gap between sports and — I naively insist — our principal academic mission. We need to find ways to keep sports more in line with the overall operation, to divert funds from sports to more important university business, and to make sure that in the current hyper-excitement, student athletes themselves are treated properly — properly defined to include adequate study time and limits on required travel.
The current situation — the disparity in trends — defies rationality. The fact is, as a society we are rapidly disinvesting in public higher education and rapidly increasing our investment in the headline college sports. It is a bread and circuses strategy that makes no sense. I freely admit that pointing to the problem is vastly easier than resolving it. But we must discuss the issues more widely: college sports are not just the business of the athletic staffs and presidents. Which is why, for the moment, restating the obvious is better than nothing.