Jonathan Chait

College Sports And Class Bias: J'Accuse!

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My item on the Northeast's lack of interest in college football spurred Matthew Yglesias to lament that his earnest agenda of college sports reform is being misinterpreted as anti-college sports snobbery:

I think it’s too bad we have this kind of regional breakdown, because it makes it a bit difficult to talk sensibly about the fact that there’s a semi-important underlying public policy issue here. Institutions of higher education actually serve an important social function and, as such, receive large quantities of explicit and implicit subsidies. At the same time, skyrocketing college education costs are a major issue for many families. So it’s fairly important that these subsidized institutions not running around wasting significant sums of money on undertakings that have nothing to do with their social function of promoting research and education. Like, for example, running money-losing sports programs.

But my suspicion is that many alumni of the non-northeastern universities that are at the core of the problem hear this critique as a form of snobbish “looking down” at their alma maters.

I will go ahead and straightforwardly accuse Yglesias of, if not outright snobbery, then at least regional, class-based myopia. Here's how high-level college sports works. Football and men's basketball generally make money, and those programs that don't make money come relatively close to making money. They plow the money they make into subsidizing sports that lose money, which is the overwhelming majority. Many programs still operate their athletic program at a surplus, but more have to subsidize athletics.

Now, I think athletics is a very reasonable thing for a university to subsidize. Universities spend tons of money on things that "have nothing to do with their social function of promoting research and education." They give their students free gyms and glee clubs and movies and whatnot. It's all part of the social experience of being a college student. At many colleges, especially outside the Northeast, attending football and basketball games is a big part of the student experience. Now, I suppose that if you had an agenda of radical parsimony in higher education, you could be crusading against non-educational experiences across the board. You don't see that from Yglesias or other critics of college sports. If you wanted to confine your criticism to sports itself, you could concede the value of football and basketball and urge colleges to stop wasting money on gymnatics and track and field. But you don't see them doing that, either. You see them concentrating their ire on the one aspect of college sports -- big time football and basketball -- that distinguishes big public universities from elite Northeast private schools.

Now Yglesias often frames his condemnation of those sports as a call for paying those student athletes. I have a lot of problems with this idea, but one clear one is that it runs headlong into Yglesias's other anti-college sports proposal. If colleges start paying their athletes, that means they have to put more money into athletics. So is the fact that colleges are subsidizing athletics his real concern?

Moreover, the argument that schools should not be funding athletic programs like football and basketball also applies at the high school level, perhaps even more. My (small-time) high school football program defrayed some of its costs by selling tickets and hot dogs at the games. Do high school players deserve to get paid? We didn't work like college players, but we were running wind sprints before dawn in the frigid Midwest darkness all winter long in a special gym class for football players, and participating in "voluntary" drills all summer long. Moreover, nearly all high school athletic programs lose money, and primary education is far more strapped for cash than post-secondary education. Yet you don't see him demanding the cancelation of high school athletics.

I'm in favor of reforming college sports in ways that help bring them into line with their ideals. There are lots of things that can achieve this: regulating limits on coaches' salaries, making all freshmen ineligible and guaranteeing them all a fifth year, cracking down on programs like Alabama that "cut" scholarship players who don't pan out, reducing the length of the season, and so on. But there's a whole other strain of "reform" that comes from people with obvious contempt for college sports and whose only consistent ideal seems to be killing off a tradition they despise. People like Yglesias may not be rubbing their hands together and snickering at the public school rubes from flyover country, but I do think their animus does have a lot to do with class and region.

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