Why I love, but also hate, March Madness
I'm a crazed basketball fan, but as an educator, I hate myself for watching March Madness. College sports are a plague on American higher education. They add a big-ticket item to mounting costs, and they compromise academic quality. Here are the numbers to prove it.
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Consider Harvard, which won its first-ever NCAA game last week by upsetting New Mexico. Amid all of the hosannas, few commentators noted that Harvard lowered its admission bar for basketball players after coach Tommy Amaker came aboard in 2007. Indeed, greater “flexibility” in admissions was reportedly one of Mr. Amaker’s conditions for taking the job. Harvard can now sign blue-chip players who wouldn’t have made the academic cut a few years ago, which goes a long way toward explaining its recent successes on the court.Skip to next paragraph
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Or look at the biggest David-and-Goliath story of the tournament, Florida Gulf Coast University, which slew perennial hoops giant Georgetown on the way to the Sweet Sixteen. If you’ve never heard of FGCU, join the crowd. Until last week, I didn’t know about it, either.
Now I do, for one reason: its basketball team. Commentators tripped over themselves to congratulate FGCU on its wise “publicity strategy.” By investing heavily in hoops, the argument went, a previously unknown institution has become a household name.
Please. If history is any judge, applications to FGCU will go up for a few years and then flatline. Perhaps alumni donations will rise a bit, too. But after that, FGCU will remain the same place as before – that is, a place privileging sports over academics. The school spends more than $15,000 per player on men’s basketball. And since tuition at FGCU is just over $5,000 per year, you can bet that the average student receives a whole lot less money and attention than the hoopsters do.
How can that be a good thing, for students or the country? Writing in 1959, shortly after the Soviet Union had launched its Sputnik satellite, a Stanford professor wondered why American universities had begun to award scholarships for sports. “The age of rockets and of satellites will not accept the free ride for an athlete of limited academic potential while the physicist with only moderate physical prowess goes unaided financially,” Rixford Snyder wrote.
Alas, Synder was wrong. Into the age of the Internet, the United States continues to shower disproportionate resources on college athletes. And while the cold war is over, we now face enormous challenges from economic competitors overseas. They must be delighted that American colleges are favoring kids who can run, jump, and throw over those who can write, reason, and imagine.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).