I am going to say it loud and say it proud, I love college athletics! Love em’! And I don’t mean I love them in a passive or nostalgic way. I mean the majority of my favorite memories are tied to college athletics. A few examples:
- I fell in love with being a college student and college life when East Carolina’s Jeff Blake broke the plain at the goal line to secure a 25-24 win over Pittsburgh in 1991.
- I fell in love with my wife when she came over to my dorm room for the explicit reason of watching the sweet sixteen in 1992, we watched UMass and Kentucky. That was the game before the infamous Laettner shot for Duke in the final eight to beat said Kentucky team.
- The last interaction I had with my dying father, on life support, was to help him fill out his 2005 NCAA March Madness brackets. He would die two weeks later.
Look, I think you get the point. I am a massive sports fan and college sports is my favorite. You name the moment; Hail Flutie, Kick Six, Catholics V. Convicts, I can tell you who Fennis Dembo is and why he is important to college sports history. But I am also a higher education professional and I have to admit, my relationship with college sports is complicated.
This fall I am going to begin teaching a course focused on Higher Education and Athletics for the University of Central Florida. I am excited about the course because beyond the glory on the field of play I am fascinated by the business, social, and cultural aspects of this part of higher education. But to give an accurate portrayal of this industry I will have to face down some of the things I know are problematic in college sports.
The first and likely foremost is the cost. In 2018 the combined expenses of all intercollegiate Athletics were $18.1 billion spent by the universities themselves. The average college student attending a division one NCAA university can expect to pay around $2,000 in additional student fees per year to support intercollegiate athletics. And most of that goes into the pockets of the coaches and administrative staff. In 40 of our 50 states, a college sports coach is the highest-paid employee in the state. Almost all of them coach football. And it is not like the student-athlete is benefitting. The average college student-athlete will graduate with almost $15,000 in student debt and their training and class schedule makes getting a part-time job an impossibility. And what about that “full-ride” scholarship? In the words of ESPN’s Lee Corso, “Not So Fast, My Friend!” Less than 1% of college athletes get one of them. Honestly, for the most part, college athletes compete with little to no scholarship. 43% of college athletes receive no scholarship. These students are mainly at Division II and Division III schools but for Division I students most athletes receive a scholarship that accounts for less than half of their college expenses.
Then there is the cost on their bodies. While football gets all of the publicity because of the very real threat of concussions most college athletes will get injured during their time as college athletes. According to a University of Indiana study, 67% of college athletes suffered from at least one major injury in college and 50% report having ongoing and permanent injuries because of their play. And the vast majority of universities do not offer rehabilitation or medical support beyond graduation so that has its own set of issues. When I watch any college sport I always think about the lasting danger to their bodies.
Finally, academic success has always been a problem. To be fair, the old days of the dumb jock are no longer appropriate but there is still a ways to go. First the good news. The average college athlete is more likely to graduate in 4 years or less and to find work within one year of graduation than their non-athlete counterparts. However, a lack of access to internships and applicable work experience does limit their choices. Many college athletes shy away from STEM degrees because the work is not compatible with their practice and performance needs. Until recently, athletes dropping out without a degree was a real problem, however, now college athletes graduate about 7% more than their non-athlete counterparts. However, it be a challenge. College athletes are more likely to present with learning disabilities, they are more likely to need remedial education. And class absences are a real issue. As an instructor myself, I can tell you that working with athletes is a wonderful experience but the gaps in student success are harder to bridge just because of the time constraints.
There are many other issues, including alcohol consumption and gambling by sports-crazed students, conduct issues with athletes, and ongoing gender gaps. So as I prepare to teach this class we have to keep in mind that being a college athlete is not an easy thing and Name, Image, and Likeness is not going to solve much. So what is the solution? Who knows, but it is important to acknowledge these challenges as I think about college athletics and higher education and teach my class this fall. This class is gonna be fun! After all, despite the issues there is still nothing like a Saturday in the fall with the marching band and the big game, hitting the winning shot, or watching these students you teach really go for it on the field.