Two reports from the body that governs college sports bring sobering news: Schools are paying more to subsidize athletic programs, and the term "student-athlete" remains a dubious concept. Those who run higher ed should be asking if sports is hindering the job of educating young people.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) can be commended for shedding more light on the academic and financial underpinnings of college sports. Better information can only lead to reform of a flawed system.
One NCAA report on revenues and expenses of big-time athletic programs (Division I) for the first time shows that high-profile athletics are, on balance, a money-losing proposition. In other words, they're a significant drain on these educational institutions.
While sports expenses at these schools rose 23 percent from 2004 to 2006, revenues (ticket sales, etc.) expanded only 16 percent. Just 17 of the 300-plus sports programs made a profit. All but one of those were among a few high-profile schools that regularly go to bowl games.
What's more, schools subsidize about a quarter of their athletics. For the non-bowl-eligible, lower-profile schools, their budgets were 70 percent subsidized.
Just how "big-time" is college sports? The report didn't name names, but it did say one school spent more than $101 million on its sports programs in fiscal 2006.
While sports expenses at colleges are likely to rise in coming years – soaring salaries for coaches, new facilities, and ever higher equipment and transportation costs – tough economic times could find support from both average fans and well-heeled boosters dwindling.
Without a doubt, a successful, frequently televised football or basketball team is a recruiting asset for a school and a lure for alumni giving. But at what expense to academic goals? College presidents, alumni, and tuition-paying parents, as well as the taxpayers who support public universities, may want to draw fresh conclusions.
A second NCAA study asks how athletes perform in the classroom, even as the NCAA stiffens its penalties for schools that fail to meet a minimum standard. That standard, called an Academic Progress Rate (APR), takes into account athletes' grades and graduation rates.
The NCAA's report shows that only about 60 percent of athletes at the nation's Division I schools graduate within six years. Among high-profile, revenue-producing sports programs, about 2 out of 5 schools had basketball teams that ranked below the APR threshold, and about 1 of 3 baseball and football teams failed to make that minimum standard.
At least the NCAA is showing it has teeth. It recently handed out tougher sanctions, including lost scholarships and warnings, to 123 schools. But not all schools who failed to meet the minimum APR score received penalties.
The sanctions are a step in the right direction, though graduation rates are hardly conclusive evidence that athletes get a real education (there are plenty of "general studies" majors).
They also fall far short of a truly deep look at what is the proper role of academics in the lives of today's college athletes, particularly those lured to campus only by scholarships and fed promises of a career path to professional sports.