Can colleges afford sports?

H. Mebane Turner

October 17, 1990|By H. Mebane Turner

IN INTERCOLLEGIATE athletics, it has come to this: Can any school afford what is required to remain competitive?

Athletics on American college and university campuses have grown through the years in the number of competitors participating and in the funding necessary to support them. Sports are probably worth the investment, provided each school sponsors a program that is compatible with its academic mission. Problems arise when a school's reach exceeds its grasp: when ambitions exceed what it costs to finance them.

I had the good fortune to play major college football in the early 1950s. A photo of the team of 1952 hangs on my bathroom wall just over the towel rack (an attempt to keep things in perspective). Freshmen played on the varsity that year. The squad numbered 41 and enjoyed an 8-2 record. Probably one-third of that team today would be classified as "walk-ons" -- they received no financial aid to play. In addition to the relatively small number of grants then awarded in football, a few were awarded in basketball and a smattering in other sports. There was no women's program.

The 1990 football team at my alma mater -- which this week happens to be ranked No. 1 in the nation -- numbers 99, and under rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), as many as 95 full football scholarships can be awarded. Alma mater currently funds approximately 270 full grants, which are distributed among 400 men and women student athletes in all sports.

The total funding required for these grants-in-aid is quite a financial commitment to "amateur" athletics, but apparently that's what it takes to be competitive. The awarding of so many grants in both men's and women's sports is probably the single biggest and most expensive change that has taken place in intercollegiate athletics since I graduated.

Intercollegiate programs operating at the level of Divisions I-A, I-AA or II, where scholarships are awarded, face the yearly necessity of increasing these grants as tuition, room, board and other expenses rise. That means ticket sales must increase, or ticket prices must go up, or alumni contributions must improve or, more likely, all three must take place. No college or university seems to be immune from the effects of inflation. For example, the University of Michigan, an institution with one of the most successful intercollegiate athletic programs in the country, a school with intensely loyal and generous alumni, with 100,000 paying spectators in attendance at every home football game, recently admitted to a deficit of over $1 million.

If the presidents and chancellors of major colleges and universities, particularly those responsible for intercollegiate athletics at the most competitive level, are to bring costs under control, it appears some things must change. I don't want to see young men or women athletes lose financial aid, but if the number and amounts now being awarded are so numerous and increasingly expensive that the cost may eventually bankrupt all but a few programs, then some remedy must be found. Perhaps the NCAA should place limits on the percentage of a student's legitimate expenses that a grant could cover, or it could limit the number of full grants that are authorized in the major sports. It is nonsense to argue, for example, that you cannot play college football just as well with a squad of 60 players as with 99, or with six or seven coaches instead of 12.

Perhaps we should also consider returning to the day when student athletes in the so-called "minor" sports ran, swam, wrestled and played tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse for the joy of the sport. If all things are even in the schools' ability to recruit athletes, then things will be even on the playing field -- and sports won't lose their competitiveness or spectator enjoyment. We might even see some of the big guys play some of the little guys again in golf or tennis. Think of the money this would save in travel alone!

It is important to keep in perspective that schools are bigger today. Whether at the intercollegiate or intramural level, more students are available to play sports. There is great personal satisfaction found in expressing oneself both as a participant and as a spectator, so we should maintain efforts to meet that need. Despite the increase in the number of students, however, there are still only so many athletes who can play on a varsity team at one time or in one game. This suggests that the emphasis in college athletics should be on intramural and club sports, where more students, male or female, undergraduate or graduate, can participate.

In proper perspective, athletic competition develops a sense of individual and team play. It can involve a whole school community by providing the spectators vicarious participation. That can be healthy and beneficial. Some of the greatest supporters of athletic teams at any level are not athletes, but individuals who enjoy the spirit of the game. Schools need to find economically sensible ways to build upon the good that lies within athletic endeavors.

Finally, we ought to bear in mind A.E. Houseman's words: "Smart lad to slip betimes away, from fields where glory does not stay." After all, whatever the sport, it is only a game. And if the game detracts from the purpose of the institution, then the emphasis and investment in sports must be carefully examined.

H. Mebane Turner, president of the University of Baltimore, was a varsity wrestler and football player at the University of Virginia. F UB dropped intercollegiate sports in 1983.


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