When Universities Worship at the Altar of Sports

Bowl season began Saturday! While most Americans probably didn’t care enough to watch NC Central vs. Grambling State in the AFR Celebration Bowl, this represents a pinnacle of the football program’s earning potential. In reality, the proliferation of bowls is a senseless cash grab. As college sports has grown, universities have become engrossed in semi-professional sports.

“Student athletes” are recruited to play at a particular school, regardless of whether they can meet the school’s academic standards, and this in hopes of building a strong team that will win more games and bring more revenue to universities. Let’s not fool ourselves; college sports is run like a big business because it is a big business. Coaches care about players and their futures but in the grand scheme of things they represent dollar signs.

Colleges are just following the money. Nationally televised games bring recognition and publicity that equals big money that can trickle down to more obscure sports within the university. The larger and more prestigious the program the greater the return to the institution. However, The Huffington Post published a story in conjunction with the Chronicle of Higher Education showing that many colleges and universities are keeping their athletic programs afloat through subsidies, a great deal of which is often footed by students.

I am not trying to argue that college sports have no place or that they are a blight on American higher education. Rather, I believe that when universities worship at the altar of college sports, they are in danger of selling their soul. Universities must continually battle the temptation to overlook infractions that would not be tolerated by another student to keep players and teams on track to meet their earning potential. Taking such a deal is ultimately a losing proposition as we have seen played out before our eyes.

shame-philly-front-pagebTake the scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky at Penn State. Everyone shares a sense of moral revulsion at the abuse that occurred. Moreover, we share a collective disgust at the university’s unwillingness to protect children, especially when one lawsuit claims that Paterno was aware of the allegations back in 1976. Barely four years after this horrific event, however, Penn State celebrated Paterno day, commemorating a man who contributed to the university but also the abuse of numerous children by his willful silence.

Then there are the events at Baylor that have led to the firing of the head football coach, Art Briles, the probable dismissal of numerous others after the season, and the resignation of President Ken Starr. In a summation of the findings, the Board of Regents noted that,

Baylor failed to maintain effective oversight and supervision of the Athletics Department as it related to the effective implementation of Title IX. Leadership challenges and communications issues hindered enforcement of rules and policies, and created a cultural perception that football was above the rules.

While the football team made bowl games and brought revenue to the school, a recent study estimates that Baylor stands to lose up to $223 million as a result of the scandal.

Though these represent extremes, they show what happens when universities sell their souls to sports for the promise of money. The mission of the university is not found on a field or a court; it is found in the classroom and in the library where the next generation is educated and equipped to lead the world forward. Colleges and universities exist to educate, equip and train. Whatever else they do is peripheral to that mission. Athletics are peripheral; education is central. They are, after all, called institutions of higher education, not institutions of higher athletics.

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