The ROI of Athletics

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In evaluating its athletics program, the board must consider fiscal conditions, the welfare of athletes, institutional impact, opportunity costs, and brand risks associated with athletics, as well as the changing public environment and attitudes about the role of athletics in our institutions and culture.

Given the enormous financial stakes, intense media scrutiny, and the pressure to win at any cost, boards should know if the supposed educational and character-building benefits that accrue to athletes are real.

The most fundamental responsibility educational institutions have to all students, including athletes, is to provide a legitimate opportunity to earn a meaningful educational and social experience in a safe and secure environment. Boards must determine whether their institutions are delivering on that promise.


The relationship between intercollegiate athletics and higher education has always been less than comfortable. But like an athlete’s body that eventually wears down after years of tears, bumps, and bruises, the forces pulling at that relationship have become exceedingly strained. Is the relationship broken? From soaring budgets to seemingly never-ending scandals to mounting legal pressures and growing concerns about athletics’ impact on campus culture and about the rights and physical and academic welfare of student-athletes, it is no stretch to say that the ROI (return on investment) of intercollegiate athletics is being questioned and challenged at institutions of all types and sizes.

In this environment, all boards, regardless of conference and divisional affiliation, need to undertake a thorough, clear-eyed analysis of their athletic programs’ alignment with institutional mission and strategy. The fundamental question: Do they contribute to institutional mission in relevant and timely ways? Is the amount of spending on athletics proportional to its contribution to mission and its educational value?

Make no mistake, significant upheaval is on the horizon. If higher education leaders don’t manage and structure that change, outside forces will. Here are five key questions to support the review process.

DO YOU HAVE ACCURATE INFORMATION?

Boards must be persistent in determining that the information they receive from institutional personnel truly reflects concerns about fiscal conditions, the welfare of athletes, institutional impact, opportunity costs, and brand risks associated with athletics. Are boards accurately assessing the changing public environment and attitudes about the role of athletics in our institutions and culture? Further, does your college or university really know how all of your constituents feel about the role and impact of athletics on campus? Or, does the board simply assume it knows the level of support for athletics, its cost, and impact on academic values and campus culture? For example, can you assume that because a program does not award athletic scholarships or spend lavishly on coaches’ salaries, that its potential to undermine academic values and institutional mission and strategy is minimal? Will de-emphasizing a sport adversely impact alumni giving and support? How do you know? Perhaps such a change would actually attract additional, more academically oriented donors.

In short, in a rapidly changing environment, it is unwise to make long-term, strategic decisions based on age-old anecdotes or simply because “we’ve always done it this way.”

ARE THE SUPPOSED BENEFITS RELEVANT AND TIMELY?

In conducting a thorough ROI analysis, it is tempting to consider various costs associated with athletics. While critical, it’s equally important to examine whether athletic departments are delivering the benefits long used to justify their place on campus.

For example, a primary defense for sponsorship of athletics, and in particular football, is that it serves as the “front porch” of the institution. But while the games provide compelling entertainment, it’s fair to say that much of what the public sees is not pretty. Increasingly, what the public and news media call attention to is hypocrisy, athlete exploitation, exorbitant spending, academic fraud, and, in the words of author Taylor Branch, in his widely read Atlantic magazine article “The Shame of College Sports,” “an unmistakable whiff of plantation.”

Is athletics a brand element that will advance the educational mission in the 21st century? With increasing evidence about brain trauma associated with football— as well as other sports, including women’s soccer—do colleges and universities want to highlight and celebrate an activity that places students at significant risk of life-altering brain damage?

Boards would be well served to consider whether they are approaching a point at which the physical toll for young people has become so clear that public perception of institutions that willingly “sacrifice” not only students but also their academic souls in the name of athletic glory may have shifted. Consider that in the early 1900s, boxing was one of America’s most popular sports. The NCAA sponsored boxing until 1960, when it became clear that the risk outweighed the benefits. Are we there yet with football?

Given the enormous financial stakes, intense media scrutiny, and the pressure to win at any cost, boards should know whether the supposed educational and character-building benefits that accrue to athletes are real. Have intercollegiate athletics become more about winning at any cost than about the process of education? Given that one of the leading justifications for athletics on campus is that sports supplement the educational process and instills positive character traits in participants, it is imperative that this question is answered.

Educators and sports advocates claim a series of positive impacts to justify athletics’ place on campus. Boards must evaluate whether these oft-stated benefits— including learning discipline, persistence, and personal responsibility— continue to apply in the 21st century, and if so, whether athletic departments are, in fact, delivering them.

Or, stated differently, can universities continue to sponsor and tolerate such a highly visible activity that on many levels appears to contradict their purposes?

DO WE UNDERSTAND THE TRUE COSTS?

Traditionally, discussions surrounding the cost of athletics have focused almost exclusively on hard finances. But as information relating to finances becomes more transparent, it is clear that 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 increases in overall institutional spending. Further, not only is the expense per student-athlete continuing to rise, but the total athletic expenditures as a percentage of total institutional expenses also continues to increase. The fact is, there are no institutions in either Division II or III, and only a small handful of Division I institutions, where generated revenues exceed expenses. And by all indications, institutional deficit spending on athletics, already significant, will continue to grow.

Boards must consider whether this is a sustainable model and how such trends impact not only educational opportunity costs but also, in an age of rising student debt, the use of student fees to underwrite athletics. Per-student fees (assessed on all enrolled students to support the athletics program) are on many campuses in the hundreds of dollars, and in some cases are over $1,000 annually. When financial aid is considered, not only are students and their families supporting intercollegiate athletics programs that they may not patronize—let alone participate in—but state and federal governments are, as well. (See “A Question For” by John T. Casteen III in Trusteeship, July/August 2016.)

Regardless of an institution’s level of investment in athletics, it is critical that university leaders consider whether that amount is appropriate and commensurate with the academic and other educational benefits derived from athletics programs. Are potential educational opportunity costs associated with athletics spending detrimental to the development of other academic programs? When it comes to athletics within an educational institution, is bigger necessarily better? Does participation in a championship-winning team provide greater educational benefit to an athlete than participation in a nonchampionship- winning team? And in an age of rising educational expectations and financial pressures, is it prudent to continue to engage in increasingly expensive efforts to “keep up with the Joneses,” a practice that occurs, to varying degrees, in all NCAA divisions?

Finally, does the athletic “culture” align with the institution’s? Research tells us that even at small, elite liberal arts institutions, sports’ impact on admissions, academic performance, and campus culture is significant, because athletes tend to make up a larger percentage of the student body than at major Division I institutions. In other words, it is important that boards, regardless of their institution’s size or NCAA divisional affiliation, consider exactly how athletics impact educational values, campus culture, and institutional brand.

WHAT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO ATHLETES?

An educational institution’s most fundamental responsibility to every student is twofold. First, to provide an opportunity to earn a quality academic credential, and second, to keep students safe and healthy while on campus by establishing a safe and secure learning and social environment.

There is little question that the academic and social experiences of scholarship athletes at far too many institutions have been woefully inadequate and, in some cases, fraudulent. The news media have documented instances of institutions admitting underprepared athletes and providing “bogus” classes and majors, all in the name of achieving athletic glory. When combined with the excessive athletic training and time demands placed on athletes, their academic and social experiences may have little in common with those of the rest of the students.

To think that this doesn’t occur, in some form, at nearly every campus in America would be misguided. Are athletes being held to the same academic, social, behavioral, and judicial standards that apply to all students in order to form a healthy, functioning academic community? Or does “athletic privilege and exception” exist on their campuses? Boards should know.

And if questions regarding institutional responsibility for providing a legitimate academic and social experience are not enough, their ability to ensure students’ health and safety is now in question, too.

The primary driver of this conversation on many campuses is football, although depending on the institution and region of the country, one could add basketball, baseball, ice hockey, or lacrosse. Football’s engrained tradition, enormous entertainment appeal, and economic clout make it the unmistakable driver of the athletics enterprise at all levels. Football is the elephant in the room in the debate regarding the role of sports not only on campus but in our society. And the fact is, the rapidly accumulating evidence about football and brain trauma has raised the question of the game’s place in the academy to a new level. It is now a moral issue.

How does this square with institutional mission if we sponsor and celebrate an activity that research tells us can be profoundly dangerous and debilitating?

At the end of the day, boards must determine whether their institutions are delivering on the many promises they’ve made to student-athletes.

DO WE HAVE THE COURAGE AND CONVICTION TO LEAD?

Our society looks to higher education to provide broad cultural leadership and direction regarding the issues of the day, including the appropriate role of sports in our schools and society at large. To underestimate the impact of athletics on the larger issues of the public’s perception of the value of education versus athletics, as well as higher education’s ability to effectively fulfill its public mission, would be shortsighted. By directly addressing these issues on their campuses, boards can reaffirm the primacy of academic and educational excellence. This is a seminal moment for college and university leaders. It is a national teaching opportunity we cannot afford to waste.

But before boards can provide such leadership, they must look internally and ask whether they are prepared and have the courage and conviction to go where the resulting dialogue, logic, and data lead them. If, for example, it is determined that the athletics department is effectively contributing to institutional mission, perhaps we should invest more heavily in it. But what if it becomes clear that it is not? What if the various costs and institutional risks associated with athletics have come to outweigh its benefits? What should a responsible board do? Courage and conviction will be crucial. If there is any American institution that must demonstrate clearly that academic excellence outweighs athletic glory, it must be higher education.

Justin Rule

Coolidge Project, 110 Gamber Lane, Lancaster, PA, 17603