September 12, 2004

AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES have been investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new palaces for their football and basketball teams and millions more in supporting the nation's best players. Beyond that deeply troubling diversion of resources from academia, what makes this a losing proposition all around?

One, though football bowl-game appearances and advancing in the annual NCAA basketball tournament can be highly lucrative for colleges, all but perhaps 10 or so big-time sports powerhouses lose money year after year -- losses typically covered by mandatory student fees.

Two, now comes the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Sports with a new report debunking the commonly held myth that success at sports programs produces more and better freshman applicants and more donations for schools.

Sure, there's some anecdotal evidence that high-profile athletic successes can prompt spikes in applications and alumni giving; often cited is the 12 percent increase in applicants to Boston College in the year immediately after its dramatic 1984 football upset over Miami on Doug Flutie's no-time-left touchdown pass.

But the commission's review of a long list of studies on the matter shows that, overall, success on playing fields has little, if any, effect on alumni donations to academic programs and on the number and quality of freshman applicants. "Individual institutions that decide to invest more money in their sports programs in the hope of raising more funds or improving their applicant pools may be throwing good money after bad," said Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank, the Knight report author.

Big-name sports schools have long been drawn into a lose-lose arms race with no end in sight; some colleges' athletic budgets now top $50 million a year -- all to gain a competitive advantage. But no matter what schools spend, it's virtually axiomatic that in every game only one team wins and the other loses. Thus Mr. Frank says his study suggests colleges would have the same chance for gains from sports for much less investment if the NCAA imposed spending caps limiting their athletic budgets.

College sports also yield intangible benefits, from developing student-athletes to unifying large campuses, which similarly would be available to the same degree under spending caps. But critically, schools then could divert the savings under this truce to their institutions' true purpose: education. We know that with the college football season cranking up, this amounts to heresy. But the idea of spending caps is worth strong consideration -- particularly since it wouldn't reduce colleges' donations or the quality of their applicants.

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