Sports Madness Reveals Itself Again Very Soon

We are approaching the beginning of the two most important months in athletics in a sports-crazed nation.

Between now, approaching February 11’s Super Bowl—where even speculation about the appearance of one of the player’s girlfriend is generating huge attention—in Las Vegas and April 8’s National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Basketball Championship game in Phoenix, Americans will be obsessively watching TV, drinking beer, and devouring pizza while observing young men’s prowess in moving balls in a manner generating great excitement.

Therefore, this is a good time to reflect upon the role that sports should play in collegiate America, briefly enumerating five problems with the status quo and hinting at some potential changes.

First, the perception that college athletes are pursuing a dual role of seriously pursuing a degree and secondarily demonstrating their ballplaying prowess has gone from being tenuous to being almost completely fictitious. Therefore, why don’t we formally separate the two?

For example, why don’t we recognize reality and make existing college teams into farm clubs for the NBA and NFL? Colleges could make huge amounts selling the naming rights to their teams.  Oxford University, the University of Toronto, and leading Chinese universities eke out a good existence without high-profile college teams, so why can’t Stanford or Ohio State? The “transfer portal” option now leads to players playing for two to three different universities over four years.

Second, we have only halfheartedly dealt with a huge moral issue—the financial exploitation of young men and some women by grown adults. Nick Saban retired from the University of Alabama making $11 million a year, while, until a few years ago, his players who actually made the Crimson Tide achieve football nirvana, were paid a fraction of one percent of that amount. The name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules have now given players some real income, but the best of them still receive a small fraction of what their pay would be in a competitive labor market. Middle-aged men are viciously exploiting these players—economic child molestation. A star college quarterback still receives a smaller percentage of a competitive market wage today than slaves typically received nearly two centuries ago.

Third, schools have formed “conferences” that have reached monstrous size, including teams that are geographically literally thousands of miles apart. The Big Ten, once a conference of 10 midwestern schools, now stretches from near the Atlantic Ocean—the University of Maryland and Rutgers—to Washington and the University of Southern California near the Pacific Ocean. Does it make sense to have perhaps 100 players and coaches travel from Seattle or Los Angeles to a suburb of Washington, D.C. to spend less than three hours playing a game with a ball? Who is going to foot the bill?

Fourth, there is growing medical evidence that college sports sometimes have long-term adverse health consequences. Are we adequately providing for those future medical expenses? I think not.

Fifth, by any rational and complete accounting, almost all universities lose money on intercollegiate athletics, and at some schools, like the one at which I am associated, an honest accounting—including things usually neglected, like depreciation on the stadium and basketball arena—would put those losses at $20 million or more annually—roughly $1,000 for every student on campus. At a time of falling enrollments and increased financial strain at many schools, is this something that we can afford? Is it fair to students, many of whom are far less enthusiastic about the football team than adult fans? At a time when many Americans are increasingly questioning more public support for colleges, does the additional cost of subsidizing athletic teams make sense?

I think a strong case can be made for having college students engaged in physical activities, participating in team intramural sports where they improve their health and often learn some leadership skills, the value of teamwork, and the need for discipline fostered by a competitive environment. Teams can also help create a sense of university community and identity.

College sports are governed by two laws. First, the Iron Law—every time someone wins a game, someone else loses. The national aggregate win-loss record of all college teams is .500–50 percent of games are won; 50 percent are lost. Not everyone can be a champion. Second, the Law of Diminishing Returns applies to sports as it does to almost everything else in life. Modest amounts of resources devoted to it can be productive and worthwhile, but vast expansion of spending—indoor practice facilities, 10 coaches instead of a couple—raises costs relative to benefits. Let’s enjoy the Super Bowl and, a few weeks later, March Madness. But remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch—or free football or basketball game.

Photo by Jacob Lund — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 211192549


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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One thought on “Sports Madness Reveals Itself Again Very Soon”

  1. One also needs to include cost shifting in any analyses of how much of a net loss college sports actually are — cost shifting being a fancy word for paying athletic-related expenses out of other budget lines, or absorbed outright as “lost income.”

    For example, team medical expenses ranging from physical exams to medical care for injuries can be charged to the student health budget because these are students and they are medical expenses. Likewise all the athletic tutoring and private instruction can be charged to academic budgets because they are students. Things like dorm surcharges for single rooms can be waived as lost income, and not-insignificant utility bills can simply come out of the general budget. Likewise maintenance (as well as depreciation) on stadiums and repairs to the grass on the football field.

    And then there’s what happened at UMass. It had a perfectly good, albeit small, basketball stadium and a winning team. So the students were charged about $300 a year to pay for a new sports auditorium — “the house that Calipari built.” It also has ice under the court so UMass could now add both men’s and women’s ice hockey as sports — except the hockey teams need to practice so they had to build another ice arena next to it for practicing. And as these are all winter sports, it’s felt that the football team (with its own stadium) also needed to be upgraded. Title IX required parity so UM had to build new fields for field hockey and softball, and for some reason, snow has to be immediately removed off the field hockey field so that’s yet another expense.

    The students, who are paying for all of this, can’t use these facilities except as spectators — nor could they really use the three campus gymnasiums anymore because they were needed for team practices, so they also have to pay a couple hundred dollars *more* each year for a new Recreation Center that they actually are allowed to use.

    It’s a sweet deal for the NFL, NBA, & NHL — and if we are going to keep the current system, I think that the leagues should somehow be paying the expenses of this system.

    Remember that Major League Baseball has its own farm teams and it pays the expenses of selecting and developing its own talent. While most colleges have a baseball team, and while good players can go into the MLB farm system, you don’t have situations like Marcus Camby where college juniors are becoming instant millionaires with all the corruption that entails. See Sports Illustrated on Camby, although memory is that they didn’t get all of it:

    Of course what is not said about Marcus Camby is that he was a poor kid who grew up with a single mother in a not-so-great part of Hartford (CT) and that he really did need an agent, just not the two that were trying to get him. He needed the structure of a farm system and that is something that UMass could not provide him.

    On the other hand, the Dartmouth College Basketball team (and SEIU) have won the right to form a union — that should be interesting, to say the least.

    Dr. Vedder proposes selling naming rights, I (half in jest) propose selling players — somehow we need to end the practice of higher education subsidizing the NFL, NBA, & NHL. It’s an expense the academy can ill afford — and it corrupts the academy.

    Let me repeat that: It corrupts the university.

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