Varsity boondoggle: The scholastic sports bubble finally bursts

Beau Dure
Beau Dure
Oct 22 · 9 min read
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Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

If you were waiting for the absurdity of parents’ pursuit of college sports perks to peak, check this out:

She is also versed in statistics, which comes in handy when she’s analyzing her eldest daughter’s junior-squash rating — and whiteboarding the consequences if she doesn’t step up her game. “She needs at least a 5.0 rating, or she’s going to Ohio State,” Sloane told me.

In fairness to “Sloane” (a pseudonym), she recognizes the excess of her family’s involvement in squash and fencing, and she sees benefits of sports beyond an end-around past the elite-school admissions lottery.

We hear about those benefits all the time. College athletes learn the value of discipline and hard work, and they’re more motivated to stay in school.

But on the parents’ side, the transaction still seems cynical.

They’ll always wonder what would’ve happened — and who they could have wowed,” Inside Lacrosse CEO Terry Foy told me, referring to the high-school seniors. “To have that opportunity lost …” His voice trailed off, before he picked up again, mournfully: “The kid who would have gone to Yale now goes to Georgetown. The kid who would have gone to Georgetown now goes to Loyola. On and on. And then eventually you get down to Wentworth. And then you just don’t play college sports.

First World problems? More like 1% problems.

And Sloane returns at the end of this story, watching her daughter explore a backup plan — rowing. She notes high-level training often makes athletes hurl. But it’s OK.

All she knows is that it’s a beautiful day. We found this coach, a lovely dynamo, who’s interested in her. The sun is shining on the water. She’s in heaven.

Sounds like the 2020 version of the 1979 XTC song Making Plans for Nigel: “And if young Nigel says he’s happy, he must be happy, he must be happy in his work.”

All of these quotes (except the XTC lyric) are from the latest piece in The Atlantic about parents — usually wealthy and White — sacrificing time, money and their children’s childhoods to avoid the tragedy of going to Georgetown instead of Yale.

This isn’t The Atlantic’s first foray into this topic. Prior examinations include “The Cult of Rich-Kid Sports” and the more pointed “College Sports Are Affirmative Action for Rich White Students.”

I’ve also written a good bit about it, including a Soccer America piece about the lengths to which parents will go to present their kids as “athletes” for college admission.

These pieces raise a few troubling points that colleges are being forced to rethink in the wake of scandals and a pandemic:

  1. Athletes, not just high-profile football and basketball players, get a huge advantage in college admission, even (or especially) at elite Ivy League and Division III schools like MIT and Emory.
  2. Other students subsidize athletes’ activities through student fees and “institutional support.”
  3. Taxpayers subsidize athletes’ activities through government support.
  4. Athletes have exclusive access to academic and career assistance.

If you want the numbers, check out a scathing report by The Drake Group, which found only 20 schools that brought in more revenue (excluding school and government subsidies) than they spent on sports. The report also found schools were paying $109,000 per student-athlete per year, making each student-athlete a losing financial proposition even if they’re paying full tuition.

Not a bad deal for most athletes. That’s why veteran sportswriter Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune had an “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” moment, urging colleges to call the bluff of protesting athletes. Don’t want a debt-free education and priority access to every perk a college has to offer? Fine. Don’t play college sports.

When the money was flowing freely, this system was able to slide by without much scrutiny. Now? Not so much. Sports are being trimmed at schools all over the country, and UC-Riverside is considering the nuclear option — no sports at all.

You don’t hear much about UC-Riverside and struggling schools in today’s college sports conversation. The focus is on athletes’ rights to make money on NIL — name, image and likeness. Such money might have convinced athletes like Katie Ledecky to keep swimming for Stanford, but the impetus here is to appease critics who think big-time football and basketball programs are exploiting students.

The irony of focusing on the big-time programs is that the “Power 5” schools from the SEC, ACC, Big Ten (actually 14), Big 12 (actually 10) and Pac-12 (actually 12 are the only ones making this enterprise work. They’re the ones whose football programs subsidize the other sports and still have money left over. Most other colleges don’t. Dig into the NCAA’s financial database, and you’ll see a lot of red.

Little wonder the Power 5 schools dominate the Directors’ Cup standings, which measure performance not just in big-ticket revenue sports but in nearly every sport colleges play. Elsewhere, students and governments are paying for programs that don’t measure up to the big-time schools.

One alternate solution UC-Riverside is kicking around: “increased student fees and expanding the department to encompass the school’s recreational programs.” Students would still be paying for sports, but they’d get more direct benefits even if they go to the gym rather than the football field.

Spelman College has already done it. In 2012, the campus decided that instead of ramping up spending to stay afloat in NCAA Division III sports, it would spend on programs for the entire student body. While other schools have spent megamillions on training facilities for no more than 25% of the student body, Spelman built a Wellness Center for all.

In doing so, Spelman refuted the notion that athletes help colleges fill seats that would otherwise be empty. The Atlanta school hasn’t had any trouble getting students in the door, accepting fewer than half of its applicants. U.S. News and World Report ranks the school 54th among national liberal arts schools and 100th in “best value schools.” Niche.com ranks it №1 among HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), just ahead of big sports school (and Kamala Harris’ alma mater) Howard University, and gives it an A+ for student life.

Project Play took notice and invited Germaine McAuley, Spelman’s director of campus wellness, to talk about it alongside NCAA medical officer Brian Hainline and Pam Watts of NIRSA, a national body on recreational college sports, in a compelling discussion called “Rethinking the ROI of youth sports.”

Yes, ROI. Return On Investment. Youth sports reduced to an economic assessment of risk and reward.

Another speaker in that session knows plenty about money and sports — he’s Michael Lewis, not the soccer writer but the author of Moneyball and, more recently, Playing to Win. Like the parents in The Atlantic’s piece, he has sunk a lot of time and energy into his kids’ sports and now wonders what the hell he’s really accomplishing here besides a tangible show of support for his kids.

“You can tick the box of ‘I’m a good parent’ by diving into this world,” Lewis said.

So imagine this: You’re writing a story about Barack Obama while he’s president. Obama invites you to come to the White House.

“No thanks, Mr. President. I have to go home to organize a softball tournament for 10-year-olds.”

That’s what Lewis did.

Better athletes, better people?

But youth and college sports help kids become successful in school and the workplace, right? All the studies and polls, such as a comprehensive Gallup survey, say so.

Surely, though, there’s some selection bias here.

The kids whose parents have the money to pursue college admission via fencing, squash, rowing, lacrosse — and, alas, soccer — are kids who’ve had every advantage in life. Their parents are role models who went to college and landed high-paying jobs. Their parents can plow through any academic issue that arises by hiring tutors to help with everything from their writing skills to their SAT scores.

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, things aren’t so rosy. The Atlantic reminded its readers of a 1988 statement by University of California sociologist Harry Edwards warning that “the single-minded pursuit of sports” was leading to “thousands and thousands of Black youths in obsessive pursuit of sports goals foredoomed to elude the vast and overwhelming majority of them.”

Edwards’ quote comes from Ebony magazine, which went even farther in eviscerating the sports machine that chewed up and spit out so many people:

Owing largely to 1) a longstanding, widely held and — at its root — racist presumption of innate race-linked Black athletic superiority, to 2) media propaganda about sports as a broadly accessible route to Black social and economic mobility, and finally to 3) a lack of comparably visible, high-prestige Black role models beyond the sports arena, Black families are four times more likely than White families to push their children toward sports-career aspirations — often to the neglect and detriment of other critically important areas of personal and cultural development.

One of the people who pushed hard in sports but didn’t get support in school was the man whose death sparked protests all over the country.

George Floyd.

“This is a system that sells dreams,” Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of sports media at Ithaca College, told The Washington Post as part of a series on Floyd. “The educational bargain is not being delivered to football players and basketball players.”

And as other sports become more professionalized, they run the risk of following the same path. Women’s soccer great Abby Wambach was remarkably candid about the topic in her book, Forward: A Memoir, in which her high school years match all the negative stereotypes of athletes — binge-drinking, pot-smoking and remaining indifferent to classwork.

My grades are horrendous. Instead of listening to lectures I practice my autograph, filling my notebooks with hundreds of ornate Abby Wambachs, picturing the lines of future fans. … I know I only have to do well enough to get into college, and that college will be paid for by a full sports scholarship. Soccer is unscathed by my bad behavior.

Wambach has since cleaned up and is enjoying her post-soccer life. How many athletes don’t make that turn?

The other question about student-athlete outcomes: Are these benefits only available for those who play varsity sports? What about club sports? Can a student only reap the benefits of teamwork and leadership by playing on a team that flies 1,000 miles on a Wednesday night for a volleyball game at taxpayer or student expense?

“I feel for the athletes whose programs were just cut, but I think they will find that club frees up time to get passionate about other things,” former Stanford rugby player Johnny McCormick told Project Play’s Tom Farrey for an article in The New York Times. “Now as a 33-year-old dad with two kids, I really appreciate that. You only get to do college once.”

Colleges and the Olympics

Another justification given for the expenses of college sports: The NCAA provides a pipeline to the Olympics, giving athletes excellent training and facilities during their peak development years.

Yes and no.

In track and field, swimming, wrestling, volleyball and a handful of other sports, most U.S. Olympians (and many foreign Olympians) have gone through NCAA competition. But women’s gymnastics is a post-Olympic activity for most athletes, top tennis players rarely play in college, and many Olympic sports aren’t offered in colleges. NCAA equestrian events bear little resemblance to Olympic competition.

Farrey’s New York Times article featured a funny stat. The school that sent the most Olympians to the 2018 Games was Westminster College, a small school with no NCAA program. It simply caters to winter athletes in Utah, the hub of U.S. winter sports.

Solutions

For all their excesses, college sports aren’t a bad thing. They harken back to the Greek ideal of exercising mind and body.

But that ideal only works if we’re talking about sports. And fitness. Not travel. Not an armada of coaches and support personnel.

Enough of students and governments subsidizing sports played primarily by people who don’t need the money.

Enough of the exclusive access to academic and career advising.

And enough overloading student-athletes. Let sports count for academic credit, just as some music and drama classes do. It’s counterintuitive, but it lets student-athletes reclaim a bit of time that they can use to take more challenging classes.

Then give students what they want — a key tenet of Title IX. Instead of putting forth a varsity team in an esoteric sport, have a junior varsity soccer team.

Less pay. More play.

Ranting Soccer Dad

A journalist, a dad, a ref and a coach walk into a blog …

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