by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As we fill in the brackets and prepare for the onset of “March Madness,” the latest issue of TIME magazine reminds us of one of the less pleasant aspects of a national obsession with college sports.
What ticks off many college students even more than an 8 a.m. class? Finding out how much they pay for sports. B. David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a former president of the Drake Group, a college-sports watchdog organization, just finished polling about 4,000 students attending schools in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), a group of a dozen public institutions mostly in Ohio and Michigan. He asked if they knew that a significant chunk of their annual student fees–payments on top of tuition that fund various student services–helped finance their school’s intercollegiate athletic department. For example, at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, $950 of a student’s $1,796 annual fee, or half the payment, funds athletic scholarships, coaches’ salaries and other sports-related spending.
Some 40% of respondents said they were totally unaware that their fees funded sports. And even those who knew about the payments were in the dark about exactly how much of the fee went to athletics. “Ridiculous,” wrote one MAC student in the comments section of the survey. It was a familiar refrain: “I pay a ridiculous amount for events I don’t attend.” “I’m here to learn, not to watch sports.” “My feelings with this news stretch no shorter than outrage.” …
… Sports budgets in the MAC average $23.2 million and rose 29% from 2006 to 2011, according to USA Today; they are 75% funded through subsidies. Notwithstanding the President’s warning, don’t bet on immediate changes. “There’s tremendous student engagement through participation in athletics, through support of athletics,” says George Ross, president of Central Michigan University. And sports can raise a school’s profile. Kent State, whose baseball team reached the College World Series in June, projects a 51% increase in applications from 2010 to 2013. Is there empirical proof that sports drove this growth? “We haven’t done a study here,” says Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen. “But with our visibility in baseball and football and basketball, just common sense would tell you it did.”
That kind of thinking is unlikely to surprise George Leef, who has discussed the impact of big-time sports on a university’s willingness to bend its standards for student admittance.