Football as a Minority Recruitment Tool: Is There a More Effective Method? A first glance would suggest that, from an economic standpoint, college athletics is booming. The NCAA is currently in the middle of a 14-year television deal that will pay $10.8 billion for the rights to telecast the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. ESPN is paying $470 million per year for 12 years to televise the college football playoffs. Corporations pay millions of dollars for sponsorship rights and skyboxes in stadiums. Colleges also rake in millions from the sale of sports apparel and related merchandize. The result is that athletic departments are awash in black ink, correct?
Getting an accurate understanding of the true economic impact of athletics on broader institutional finances is no easy task. Colleges account for athletics expenditures in different ways and there is ample debate regarding the true costs of athletics. But for purposes of this essay, we will use financial data generated by the NCAA.
Based on that data, athletics has not been as fiscally sound an investment as long believed. Virtually every financial trend, throughout every NCAA division, points to athletics expenses increasing not only at a faster rate than generated revenues, but also far outstripping overall institutional spending. Total athletic expenditures as a percentage of total institutional expenses continue to increase. There are no Division II or III institutions and only a handful of Division I institutions where generated revenues exceed expenses. According to the NCAA, in 2013, the median negative net generated revenue, representing expenses in excess of generated revenues at the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools was over $11.5 million and almost $11 million for both the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) as well as Division I schools without football. And by all indications, institutional deficit spending on athletics, already significant, will continue to grow. Even in the case of football taken separately, the numbers are a bit startling. While it is widely believed that football programs themselves are profitable and underwrite the entire athletic budget, according to the NCAA, only 56% of FBS football programs operate in the black. And that number may be high as expenses directly related to football are often lumped into general athletic or general institutional expenses.
In short, while Division I athletic programs are generating revenue, except for approximately 20 programs, they spend more. That being the case, it is critical that we consider whether such deficit spending is appropriate and commensurate with the academic benefits generated.
Granted, there are institutional benefits associated with athletics that don’t lend themselves to precise economic analysis. For example, athletics generates visibility and branding opportunities as the institution’s “front porch”, scholarships present valuable educational opportunities for many young people who otherwise would not be able to afford college and sports serves as a powerful tool to unify a campus community.
But similar to the widely held belief that athletics generates excess revenue for the institution, it is arguable whether athletics is successfully meeting these justifications. Athletics visibility is a two-edged sword as it’s fair to say that increasingly what the public views -- hypocrisy, athlete exploitation, exorbitant spending, continued academic fraud and, in the words of Taylor Branch, “an unmistakable whiff of plantation” – is not pretty. And there is no longer any question that the academic experience that scholarship athletes are receiving at far too many universities has been woefully inadequate and in some cases, fraudulent. And while a winning team can unite a campus, athletics can also bitterly divide an institution in the case of an athletic scandal or when it is perceived that the athletic culture receives “privileged” status at the expense academic values and campus culture.
And if those challenges are not enough, institutions now have to consider their responsibilities relating to increased data regarding the link between football and brain trauma. Potentially most damaging is that an argument can be made that universities are physically “sacrificing” young people, the majority of them black, in the name of entertainment, athletic glory and generating revenue. The link between football and potential life-changing damage to the brain – the organ that makes us human - has raised the issue of the game’s impact on and place in the academy to a new level. It is now a moral issue.
Complicating the situation is the fact that these challenges must be met in an environment of rising educational expectations, declining resources, increased public skepticism regarding the value of a college degree and rising student debt. Thus, it is imperative that we take a serious look at how and whether athletics strategically aligns with and adequately contribute to institutional mission and strategy. Institutions must decide whether the educational return on investment for athletics is enough to continue to justify the tremendous time, effort, energy, emotion and risks associated with it.
Educational Opportunity Costs
In a perfect world, all institutional programs would be fully funded. But we don’t live in a perfect world. In an age of rising athletic department debt and tighter institutional budgets every institutional program and initiative must be evaluated to determine whether it remains relevant, timely and effective, including all aspects of athletic department spending.
The key question relates to “educational opportunity costs”. At what point does the amount of institutional educational expenditures appropriated to athletics begin to hamstring efforts to maintain and improve various programs and initiatives that are more central to the academic mission of the institution? For example, would those resources be better spent on improving science labs or campus wi-fi or offering additional sections in majors where students often cannot enroll in required courses due to lack of course offerings? At what point do the educational opportunity costs associated with athletics become too great?
Within that context, the purpose of this essay is to consider another long-held and largely unquestioned institutional benefit of athletics. Specifically, that institutional investment in athletics, particularly football (and to a lesser degree, basketball) is an effective way to attract, retain and graduate minority students.
While football attracts Black men to campus, the question is whether this is the most effective vehicle through which institutions can accomplish that worthy goal. Would those same institutional resources, if applied directly to academic, rather than football programs, yield better long-term institutional return on educational investment as it relates to minority recruitment, retention, graduation and future alumni giving?
Additional Services and Support
The use of football to attract minorities to campus creates an interesting educational dynamic. Specifically, it creates an environment and expectations that athletes are on campus to serve as athletes first and students a distant second. That reality cannot help but to negatively impact academic expectations, performance and graduation. Yes, institutions can claim these “students” in their diversity numbers, but the larger issue is whether they are being provided a legitimate opportunity to earn a well-balanced academic and social experience. We call them “student-athletes”, but they are, for all intents and purposes, professional athletes, who are often discouraged from participation in activities beyond their sport. The result is that their academic experience on campus has little in common with that of the general student body.
Because many of these athletes are under-prepared academically, they require significant academic support programs and facilities. Institutions should also consider whether those additional expenses are prudent and yield the best possible long-term benefit for the institution. What if not only recruitment expenses, but also the academic and social support expenses required to improve athletes’ chances at academic success were directed to support non-athlete minorities who are recruited based on academic rather than athletic credentials?
According to a 2010 study by the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research, the gap between institutional investment in athletes versus non-athletes is wildly out of balance. The median spending per student versus athlete in the Power Five conferences ranged from 6.1 times more for athletes ($19,225 for non-athletes vs. $116,667 for athletes) in the Big Ten conference to 12.2 times more in the Southeastern Conference ($13,390 for non-athletes vs. $163,931 for athletes).
Another interesting piece of data regarding football and minority recruitment relates to the ratio of minority students on campus versus the ratio of minority athletes on football and basketball teams. According to a 2016 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education the difference is stark. The study examined the “Power Five” conferences, including a comparison between the percentage of Black undergraduates on campus and the percentage of Blacks on the football and basketball teams. The numbers range from a discrepancy of 74.7% at Auburn University (3.2% Blacks in undergraduate student population versus 77.9% of Blacks on the football and basketball teams). While that is the highest discrepancy, the numbers for the rest of the schools in the Power Five conferences are not much better as only 15 of the 65 schools studied had differences of less than 50%. Interestingly, while universities claim that academically qualified Black men are hard to find, apparently it’s not so hard to recruit and admit Black football and basketball players. Clearly, something is out of balance. Perhaps if universities pursued Black male non-athletes with the same vigor as revenue generating Black athletes, they would attract more of them.
Further, despite investing in the best academic support services and facilities that money can buy, according to that same University of Pennsylvania study, just over half of Black athletes in the Power Five conferences graduated within six years, compared to 68 percent of athletes overall and 75 percent of undergraduates overall. The study also revealed that two-thirds of those institutions graduated Black male athletes at rates lower than Black men who were not athletes, despite non-athletes having far less access to high quality academic support and facilities.
The Cases of Freddie Football and Andy Academics
Consider the following two students, Freddie Football and Andy Academics. Both are minorities, first generation college students and both are underprepared academically. They are both “special admits”. From there, their academic and social experiences diverge sharply.
Freddie arrived on campus several weeks before classes began to participate in pre-season workouts and in some cases may even have played a game or two before attending his first class. This serves as a powerful message regarding priorities. Once classes begin, he is required to participate in athletically related activities for at least 40 hours per week but far too often many more, leaving him exhausted. The exhaustion, coupled with the extreme physicality of football (ever try concentrating after repeatedly banging your head against the wall?) makes studying almost impossible. Further, Freddie is enveloped in a culture where it is made crystal clear that football performance is far more important than academic achievement. He also knows that if he performs well enough athletically, it’s likely that with a minimal amount of effort, “The Program” will find a way to keep him eligible.
This is not to say that Freddie Football doesn’t want to be immersed in the institution’s academic culture. Rather the system, as currently structured, does not allow it. The athletic demands are too extreme. And he has little choice but to comply because he knows that if he doesn’t perform athletically, he will, like a professional athlete, be let go. Make no mistake, Freddie fully understands athletic department priorities.
Andy, rather than having to participate in athletics more than 40 hours per week, can devote that time to academic endeavors and campus community involvement. He also knows that it is academic performance that enabled him to have the opportunity to attend college and that he must perform academically to remain in school. Andy’s priorities are clear – academics are first and foremost. He knows that if he doesn’t perform academically he will flunk out.
Long-Term Educational ROI?
Finally, there is the issue of loyalty and potential future support Black athletes will provide the institution. While there is little data on institutional giving of Black athletes versus black or non-athletes generally, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many Black football players have little inclination to donate to their schools after their playing days are over. Many feel that they have already “given” more than their fair share in the form of athletic talent and physical sacrifice for what turned out to be a false promise of a chance to receive a legitimate opportunity to earn a meaningful educational experience and degree. Besides, if only 50% of Black athletes graduate, how many are in the position to have earned a standard of living that would allow them to donate? In short, from a long-term institutional educational investment, does it make more sense to appropriate recruitment and retention resources to support a student who is on campus first and foremost for academic rather than athletic reasons? Is it money well spent to invest so much in someone whose future career goals are to play in the NFL rather than a student whose goal is to become a teacher, engineer or architect?
In the end, this is about education and academic values. It is about institutional priorities and cuts to the heart of the institution’s soul and mission. What does it say about an educational institution that claims to be providing legitimate educational opportunities to minorities when in fact, those “opportunities” are more about athletics, generating money and proving public entertainment? In a rapidly changing world, with increasing public skepticism regarding higher education’s value and effectiveness, university leaders must leave no stone unturned in the effort to maximize their institution’s ability to successfully fulfill its academic mission as opposed to its athletic reputation.
If an important institution goal is to increase enrollment of Black men, consideration should be given to all institutional efforts to do so, including the resources appropriated to football players at a rate of 6 to 12 times more than students generally. A central question in those discussions should be whether those institutional resources would be better spent improving and expanding recruitment efforts to attract minorities to academic programs rather than athletics. Perhaps, in the long run, it would be better to invest in academically motivated and committed minority students who may some day become scientists, doctors, business leaders or social entrepreneurs than athletes whose primary focus is on the less than 2 percent chance of becoming an NFL quarterback or linebacker.