Should Institutions Support Sports Programs That Don't Make Money? | Just Explain It to Me! – Inside Higher Ed

Breaking down notoriously confusing, perplexing and annoying systems and practices in higher education
Plus some other ways to think about the value of athletics.
From a reader: Please just explain to me why a college/university would/should continue supporting sports programs that make no money and, in fact, result in subsidization, which could be argued is to the detriment of the student success mission for nonathlete students?
Great question. I’ll hit a few highlights, point out some of the ways individual institutions might evaluate the cost versus the value of a sports program and provide some articles that may provide further insights.
Most athletic programs are not profitable. Each year the National Collegiate Athletic Association issues an annual report on the finances of intercollegiate athletics. The 2020 report found only 25 Division I programs had revenues exceeding expenses. No Division II or III program had revenues exceeding expenses. There are 1,102 Division I, II and III schools.
Athletic programs may not necessarily benefit student athletes. Recent court cases have focused on how the profitability of sports programs may violate student athletes’ rights. In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in NCAA v. Alston et al. that the NCAA could not bar student athletes from being paid. In O’Bannon v. NCAA, the court ruled in favor of O’Bannon regarding using a student athlete’s likeness for commercial purposes. Also, instances exist where student athletes did not receive the education promised. A 2017 report about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill detailed a decades-long practice of providing fake classes for student athletes.
In these instances, and in others, student athletes are viewed as moneymaking tools and exist to serve the institution. Monetizing students’ skills and talents is problematic for many reasons, both legal and ethical. Profitability may not be the best way for an institution to determine whether a sports program exists. Perhaps there are other ways to look at the reader’s question.
If most programs are not profitable, and profitability may come at the expense of student athletes and nonathletes alike, how do institutions weigh the cost of sports programs against their value? Many institutions point to benefits such as access to education for students, student development, co-curricular support, a marketing tool for enrollment and an engagement tool for alumni and friends. But do these benefits apply to all sports programs at all institutions writ large? No, because institutions vary in size, scope, focus and capacity.
Beyond the benefits, some institutions avoid cutting athletic programs because of associated risks. Eliminating programs affect some students and employees severely and often spurs controversy, protests and legal challenges. However, the effects of COVID-19 on institutional budgets have pushed the issue to the forefront in ways unseen before. According to a 2020 report by ESPN, between March 11 and Nov. 6, 2020, 352 NCAA teams were cut from colleges and universities. They presented a view about why the trend was concerning.
On the other hand, The New York Times offered this essay by Tom Farrey on Oct. 13, 2020, about the matter: “Colleges Are Cutting Varsity Sports. That Could Be a Good Thing.
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