The absurdity of college athletics

As I prepare to send my third child off to college, I’m seeing costs for colleges that are out of this world and rising. Here are the projected costs for one-year of tutition, room and board at various four year colleges:

  • In-state public university: $30,000
  • Out-of-state public university: $45,000
  • Private university: $68,000

So when I see an article like this about universities spending obscene amounts of money on athletic facilities, it makes me wonder if the university system has lost it way. Are these institutions of higher learning, or are they owners of professional sports franchises?

I urge you to take a look at the article that is linked above. The University of Pittsburgh recently spent $3.5MM on an athletic facility overhaul. Penn State University is in the midst of a $12MM overhaul, and these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Clemson just announced a $55MM facility upgrade, and the University of Oregon just completed a $100MM renovation that, according to the article, includes “Brazilian hardwood and urinals imported from Turkey.”¬†Facilities with indoor waterfalls, lasertag and miniature golf, seriously? Am I reading this right?

Reading these articles, I see institutions that are spending money to build over the top athletic facilities to recruit the best athletes to win national championships rather than investing money to recruit the best students by offering a quality education at an affordable price. Am I the only one who thinks the priorities are a little misplaced? For another example, take the 15 minutes to watch this video of the University of Alabama training facility.

Furthermore, the universities enjoy a major advantage over their professional franchise brethren. The biggest cost of owning a professional sports franchise is paying the players who are on the teams. Nearly 50% of the revenue earned in each professional league goes to the players. Because of NCAA rules, universities aren’t allowed to pay their athletes. In other words, universities hide behind these NCAA rules to avoid having to incur the biggest cost to running a sports franchise – paying the athletes who generate the revenue.

While many argue that paying college athletes should be a requirement. I’ve argued that paying college athletes is not the answer. It’s a policy that I stand by. Of course, the college athletes should be paid something, but it won’t fix the root of the problem that the priorities for institutions of higher learning are whacked. Sports is supposed to be a recreational diversion. Not an activity that dominates the focus of the administration to the point where winning national championships becomes more important than offering a quality education at a reasonable price.

Unfortunately, I’m concerned that college athletics has reached a tipping point. There is so much money sloshing around in the system from television and merchandising revenue, that I have no idea how you would be able to suck the money out of that system and reset the priorities of the schools. Unless the professional sports leagues step up and create viable minor league or semi-professional leagues that allow athletes to make money while honing their skills rather than pretending to be student-athletes, I don’t see any chance for change. Even if minor leagues were formed, I still think would be years for change to take hold.

At the end of the day, it’s disappointing. It’s very likely that I’ll end up writing more checks to a university where the focus is about improving the quality of their athletic facilities and having their sports teams achieve national championship status rather than putting their primary focus on offering a top notch quality education at a cost that is commensurate with its value.