A Healthy Tension

Tension about the role of athletics on the college campus provides regular fodder for those interested in the scholarly study of intercollegiate sport.  Hardly a semester goes by, and certainly not a calendar year, without another controversy or scandal creeping into the public eye.

Most of the issues that garner attention are associated with big-time college sports.

To cite just a few …

  • Football players at Northwestern University announced plans this week to form a labor union with the purpose of representing the interests of college athletes.
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill remains embroiled in an investigation of academic fraud involving the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies between 1997 and 2011.
  • Head football coaches at big-time institutions often make far more in salary and benefits than do their athletic directors and school presidents (nominally the bosses of those coaches).
  • Athletic conferences undertook major realignment the past couple of years with little to no regard for tradition, rivalry, or geographic common sense, but with an eye to the economic ledger and huge television rights payouts.

Such a list could go on and on and on.

However, potential problems concerning the role of athletics on campus are not limited to big-time schools – they certainly extend to smaller schools too.  The issues may be different, but are no less troublesome for trustees, administrators, faculty, athletic staff, and anyone interested in protecting the integrity of academics and athletics on campus.

Here are three factors leaders at small schools should consider with regard to the place and purpose of intercollegiate athletics on campus.

Mission: What is the true purpose of athletics on the campus?  Are the teams meant to promote the college name and “brand” by producing winning teams with an ultimate goal of attracting more students?  Or, is intercollegiate competition meant to develop character, leadership, integrity, sportsmanship, and other traits those of us involved in sport love to tout?

Every leader will answer this question the same way.  “We expect both.”

That’s admirable, but what do the actions of the leaders at a school demonstrate?  For example, is a coach more likely to get fired for having a few consecutive mediocre seasons (while fielding a squad of fine students who stay out of trouble and represent the institution well), … or for having outstanding won-loss records (while fielding a team of students who drift in and out of school, fail to take academics seriously, and create problems on campus)?

Enrollment-Driven Recruiting:  The economics of small-school college athletics are interesting.  While sports can generate revenue for the institution, those monies come mainly from enrollment dollars (tuition), and not from ticket sales, merchandise, concessions, licensing, and the like.

Let’s say the full cost of attending School A for a year is $25,000.

Every sports team at the school has an enrollment target.  For example, a basketball squad could be allotted the equivalent of six full scholarships to be divided as the coach sees fit.  That scholarship cost is $150,000 (6 x $25K = $150,000).  The squad’s enrollment target might be 18, meaning the team must have 18 students enrolled.  Those students would generate revenue of $450,000 (18 x 25K = $450,000).  When we subtract the cost of the six scholarships from the gross revenue of the eighteen students enrolled, the basketball squad generates a gross of $300,000.

Want to know why football is so attractive to small schools?  Use the same figures for a football team at School B with larger numbers involved in that sport.

If the scholarship allotment is 24, the cost to the institution is $600,000 (24 x $25K = $600K).  If the enrollment target is 100 (which is not uncommon for small schools), those students would generate $2.5 million (100 x $25K = $2.5M).  Using those numbers a football team would generate $1.9 million annually for the college.  Not bad money.

Those figures are a bit simplistic and do not take into account other expenses that increase as the number of athletic department teams and players grows (travel, lodging, facilities, staffing, etc).  But, any leader on campus should comprehend enrollment-driven recruiting.

Resource Allocation: Another pressure point involves resource allocation.  At many small schools, already low faculty and staff salaries have been relatively stagnant for years, classroom resources are typically limited, and research funding sometimes virtually nil.

Juxtapose those conditions with a very visible increase in the number of coaches hired, new or upgraded athletic facilities and equipment, and the attention given to sports on campus, and campus leaders are faced with managing a potentially volatile relationship between the school’s academic interests and athletic interests.

So, issues associated with college sport are not limited to big-time schools and conferences.

Leaders at smaller institutions must remain vigilant as to the place of athletics on campus.

Author’s Note: This article was originally published on the Sports and Fitness Network

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