A review of college athletics

Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports

Collegiate athletics has never experienced as much turmoil as in the past few years and, as a result, it is undergoing a tremendous identity crisis.  Conferences have realigned for two reasons: They are trying to increase revenues and are joining forces with like-minded institutions.  As this trend continues, three questions come to mind:

Is NCAA Division I collegiate athletics a capitalistic or socialistic system?

Historically, athletics was a loss leader for universities, and it still is for most schools.  For most of the approximately 350 institutions at the NCAA Division I level, the single largest donor to the athletics department is the institution itself.  Institutions determine what percentage of the general fund will go to athletics to be used for subsidizing scholarships, paying salaries, funding operational budgets and building/maintaining facilities.  If it was purely a capitalistic system, collegiate athletics for 325 of these institutions would have declared bankruptcy long ago.  For these athletics programs, it is indeed rooted in a socialistic system, receiving payments from the greater organization, the university.

There is a growing number that indeed operate as an auxiliary or subsidiary of the university.  They are not only able to operate nearly independently of the institution, but also generate profits.  The largest donor is no longer the institution, but the television network.  The media and all it entails will grow the number of profitable programs from the 20s to the 60s in the coming year.  They will almost exclusively be members of the five major football conferences.  For these institutions, their decisions will be based less in the philosophical and more in the fiscal reality of their programs.

Is NCAA Division I collegiate athletics an educational endeavor or a business?

The answer is yes and yes.  One can easily argue that the lessons learned by athletes are educational, and students who attend games and cheer on their teams are equally educationally impacted.  Athletics is a microcosm of life and, therefore, an efficient way to learn life’s lessons.

In its earliest and most traditional form, collegiate athletics was also a business. Coaches were hired and budgets were formed to operate those teams comprised primarily of students who wanted an education.  Eventually, scholarships were offered.

Today, Division I has dramatically shifted toward the business model.  Coaches are looking for athletes first and students second.  And those above the coach on the institutional org chart permit it because of the pressure to win.  Winning generates revenue and creates perceptions about the quality of the institution.  It generates larger student applicant pools, faculty who want to work at a successful institution and a spiral upward of numerous other positive benefits.

But it comes at a price.  Athletes incapable of measuring up academically are admitted.  Ongoing curricular and academic scandals seriously question the nobleness of the educational endeavor in keeping athletes eligible to compete.  The NCAA and its academic standards are an effort to combat this trend.  However, institutions have circumvented these standards with a blind-eye or the blessing of administrators.

Is NCAA Division I collegiate athletics an amateur or professional enterprise?

Stanford football coach David Shaw has frequently stated he believes that college is a place where athletes should learn how to make money, not make it.  The value of a four-year Stanford education approaches $60,000 per year, and with 85 football players that is approximately $5 million annually allocated for the team’s education, tax and debt free at graduation.  The same individual value can be attributed to that golfer, swimmer or fencer who attends Stanford on an athletic scholarship.

However, with the recent vote of the Northwestern football players to determine whether or not to unionize, the question of being truly paid to play has arisen.  In addition, the various lawsuits that institutions and the NCAA are besieged with, specifically around the sports of football and basketball, stem from the fact that the monetary stakes of collegiate athletics have risen dramatically in recent years and advocacy for that money to go to student-athletes has also grown.  The motives are not newly fallen snow.  Division II and III NCAA football and basketball players are not a part of this discussion.  Why? Because there is little money to be made by lawyers, agents and unions.


With over 3,000 institutions of higher learning in this country, the collegiate athletics scene and discussion has, and will continue to be, dominated by the 65 universities that play big-time football.  The issues faced by these institutions, which can be argued are already capitalistic and a business/professional athletic enterprise, will be much more easily resolved than for the other 285 NCAA Division 1 programs.  For those institutions, the three questions above are not so easily answered because they are less sure of who they are and what they want to be.


Dr. William S. Husak has been the Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Loyola Marymount University since 1998.  He is a graduate of SUNY-Cortland and Texas A&M University and has 35 years of higher education academic and athletic experience.

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