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.

Sarah Coward/The News-Press/AP
Fans of Florida Gulf Coast University men's basketball celebrate the team's trip to the Sweet 16 on March 25. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes: 'By investing heavily in hoops, the argument went, a previously unknown institution [Florida Gulf Coast University] has become a household name. Please. If history is any judge, applications to FGCU will go up for a few years and then flatline.'

I’m a crazed basketball fan, so I love it when the NCAA tournament rolls around. But I’m also an educator, and so I hate myself for watching.

That’s because college sports are – to put it bluntly – a plague on American higher education. They add a big-ticket item to our mounting costs, and they compromise our academic quality. And now we’ve got the numbers to prove it.

Let’s start with costs. Colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision – the most competitive of the Division I programs – spent an average of nearly $92,000 per athlete in 2010, according to a January study by the American Institutes for Research. For the student population at large, the average per capita spending was less than $14,000.

I’ll spare you the math: These schools spend more than six times as much on athletes as they do on students generally.

True, some programs bring in rich revenues via TV contracts, ticket sales, and concessions. But fewer than one-quarter of FBS programs generate more money than they spend. The others rely on institutional subsidies and student fees to keep their sports teams going.

Nor do these investments yield big payoffs down the road, as many people still believe. Remember the so-called “Flutie factor” at Boston College, which allegedly experienced a surge in applications after Doug Flutie’s winning “Hail Mary” pass against the University of Miami in 1984? It turns out that applications were already going up before then, thanks to new campus facilities and other improvements.

Even at schools where applications spike after athletic successes, the bump generally lasts only a year or two. And studies show that winning sports teams have little effect on alumni donations, blasting another well-worn myth.

Here’s what we do know: Schools lower their admission standards for athletes. According to a 2008 study of 54 public universities, male basketball players entered college with an average SAT score more than 200 points lower than the average score for the school.

But athletes receive the biggest admissions boost at elite colleges, which pride themselves on their academic bonafides. As former Princeton President William Bowen has shown, recruited athletes have about a 50 percent better chance of gaining admission to highly selective colleges than other kids with similar credentials.

While affirmative action for minorities continues to cause controversy across our higher education system (they have an 18 to 24 percent advantage in admissions), almost nobody objects to the much greater affirmative action that we grant to athletes.

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.

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).

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