How college sports disadvantage athletes and students

By Andrew Boschert / For The Pitt News

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I’ve been a lifelong football fan and, if you ask me, football — not baseball — is America’s pastime.

Undeniably though, football has had a tough year.

The NFL, for instance, has mishandled countless issues. They continue to dodge the emerging evidence of long-term brain damage. NFL cheerleading is horrifically underpaid and over-demanding — cheerleaders often make less than minimum wage. Felons — such as Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress — regularly grace the field with a disturbing nonchalance. 

Oh, and all the while the government defines the NFL as nonprofit.

Despite all this, football remains extremely profitable — professional football is worth roughly $10 billion. This holds immense consequence for collegiate sports, particularly football.

The NFL’s college counterpart, the NCAA, doesn’t exactly have a clean record either. The association doesn’t have to treat student athletes as employees, despite them generating millions of dollars. 

Like the NFL, the NCAA is also defined as a “nonprofit.”

Yet, in 2013, it kicked back $509 million to Division I schools. Again, despite the controversy, college football remains more popular than the NBA and MLB in terms of ratings. With companies throwing publicity and money at schools, schools have little reason to complain.

But one thing gnaws at me: Is it all ethical?

Take the case of former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter. Commitments to the football team forced him to change his major from pre-med to psychology. Obligations to football discouraged him from even taking a chemistry course — coaches don’t want their quarterbacks to take time out of studying plays to study organic structures.

At a university, is it right for academics to take a back seat to athletics?

Feeling restricted academically seems to be a common thread among athletes. For instance, 64.7 percent of Pitt’s own football players are either administration of justice or communications majors, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Are these the fields of study players are really most passionate about?

It seems doubtful, more likely, that the cultural importance of football wins over a student’s freedom to choose a field of study. 

Football players also have to deal with the  looming threat of injury. A torn ACL can spell disaster and leave a player without a scholarship. Schools that profit from athletics are unlikely to pay for long-term problems  — including brain damage.

What’s more, schools actually end up losing money with collegiate sports. Universities end up subsidizing our sports teams with non-athlete tuition and — you guessed it — taxpayer money. 

The NFL’s minor league system is basically a public trust.

One imagines some of those $10 billion could fund education for athletes and their medical bills alike.

There are those who would argue that collegiate sports programs help athletes pay for school, as well as help fund education, but, in reality, taxpayers end up footing the bill by way of our public schools, students are drastically underfunded and athletes are, by and large, exploited for profitability. 

Where does the money go? Am I meant to believe that college sports aren’t actually profitable?

College certainly isn’t getting any less expensive. Tuition is skyrocketing and showing no signs of slowing down. Student debt has spilled into the trillions of dollars and continues to grow. 

If college sports do make money, they should benefit more than just a small fraction of students.

This all poses the question: Is playing college football worth it? It’s either not as profitable as we think, or the money has been squirreled away somewhere. There have to be reasonable reforms that can have the system benefit all.

One possible solution: Perhaps all the gigantic, multimillion-dollar stadiums are a bit much. The University of Cincinnati poured a whopping $80 million, or enough for about 1,800 full rides to the school for in-state students, into expanding its stadium. It’s depressing that the highest paid public employee is a college football coach in most states, including Pennsylvania. 

To alleviate the financial emphasis that schools place on athletics, academics need to become a priority for student athletes, not an after thought. The NCAA and schools need to work together to make college more affordable for everyone. 

Is it idealistic to think we can have our cake and eat it too? I love college football and I never want to see it go away, but the NCAA needs to shift the framework.

It won’t be easy. Football and capitalism are American institutions, but the power and influence of collegiate sports should drive education and scholarship.

Schools need to be aware that collegiate sports aren’t always the smart investment, either. In fact, 72 percent of students don’t consider sports when choosing a school. An increase of spending per student might sway the voters, however.

It’ll be hard to step away from the yearly lottery of prestige and free advertising, but it’s in our generation’s interest to take sports less seriously. The time commitments necessary to compete are far too demanding. Fancy facilities and high paid coaches are unnecessary frills for part time (and ultimately amateur) athletes. 

Maybe college sports can become the revered institution we keep insisting it is. 

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