College after coronavirus #3: Sports

Note: This is the last of three posts about threats to higher education exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The second part of this series, on the campus social experience, is linked here.

This week the president of the University of Michigan, a pretty good school from which I hold a couple of “credential papers,” announced that, if there are to be no on-campus classes this fall, neither will there be football. Good on the president (interestingly, also an immunologist by training) to acknowledge that intercollegiate sports do not completely dictate what goes on for the rest of campus. Other schools in the Midwest are going ahead with the football season come hell or high water.

Back in 2018 I wrote a post calling any discussion of college sports “the third rail” of rational discussion about the financial challenges facing higher education. People have lots of strong opinions and I feel my toes tingling already. I admit that when I was a college administrator my relationships with the coaches were often dicey. And yet, I know that the presence of those students was crucial to the fiscal health of my institution.

But it is helpful to recognize why the tension exists. The coronavirus pandemic is greatly exacerbating already-existing problems with the role of intercollegiate sports on campus, and so it is time to jump on the tracks to discuss some likely short-term and possible long-term impacts.

One of my first required adaptations to working in an education-market business in Europe in the early 2000s was to recognize how different from the U.S. is the “business model” of their institutions of higher learning. University enrollment at a low cost to the student is common throughout Europe. But a major reason for their governments being able to pay for those costs is the much smaller investment in “student life” facilities (especially on the Continent) and competitive sports. While sporting clubs exist, participation rarely has any tie to student academic work. [1] In the U.S., however, athletic program success and continued fiscal viability go hand-in-hand for the majority of four-year campuses, both public and private. As we shall see, this greatly complicates the “free college” debate.

Two types of college sports programs

There are, in my bifurcation, two “sports markets” in U.S. higher education, and they will see quite different effects from the new coronavirus environment. At most major state universities, a relatively small number of students depend on sports-related tuition aid. And yet, the sports themselves, especially football and basketball, are often “big time” in the social life and reputation of the school. Coaches are often the highest-paid public employees in their respective states and the athletic program budgets can get huge.

If these “student-athletes” are treated well by their school, they can graduate with a marketable degree and may even have a “shot at the pros.” However, betting on that latter option of “going pro” instead of getting a “better” educational credential is a risky wager. The NCAA’s own figures demonstrate that few students make it to the professional leagues, and they do not even report how many actually last long enough to earn “the big bucks.” Nor does this even consider some really bad graduation rates among those athletes at some schools.

NCAA athletes turning pro

Source: NCAA

One ugly reality exacerbated by these tough financial times in states is that many schools that attempt to play in that top sports tier are losing a lot of money in the process. Sorting out the “true cost” of college-level athletics is an auditor’s nightmare. “Creative accounting” abounds depending on whether schools are trying to maximize or minimize the apparent impact of sports on the overall university budget. However, even the NCAA’s own data show the extent of the burden intercollegiate athletics places on institutions outside that “top tier”:

The NCAA reported in 2016 that the average Division I school lost $12.6m annually on athletics if they don’t have a football team, and $14.4m if they do. In Division II, the annual loss per school as of 2014 was $5.1m if they had a football team and $4.1m if they did not. For Division III, football schools lost $3.1m on athletics while those without football experienced a $1.6m loss.

“The bring”

Below that top tier, and especially for many smaller private colleges, intercollegiate sports have a very different role in the institutional cashflow. This is especially true in those sports outside of football and basketball that that do not attract a lot of “fans in the stands” among the students or deep-pocketed alumni, let alone media contracts. These sports are instead a vehicle for what my former coaching colleagues called the bring.

“The bring” is the incremental “outside cash” in the form of government financial aid that prospective student-athletes bring with them to any school in which they enroll. Because of the high fixed-cost, low variable-cost nature of American college budgets, it can cost the school relatively little in incremental cash to house and teach one more student on campus, as long as the dorms and other facilities are running below capacity.

Each incremental dollar brought in from outside to a below-capacity school is an essential cashflow for that school’s fiscal health. As long as the net cashflow from “the bring” exceeds the cost of fielding that team, the school is theoretically better off, even for low-participation sports. It is the coaches, by and large, who are actively recruiting to put butts in chairs in the classrooms of many schools, not (by and large) the business professors like I was, who dangle the educational credential. Thus, the tension.

The student is offering his or her athletic skill, plus that outside cash, in exchange for a credentialed education. In our current system in the United States, that is the market reality for many young people, their parents, and many of these schools themselves. Even then, most of these students will not escape a heavy dose of student loan debt that will plague them for years, especially if they do not graduate.

What happens this fall?

As I noted in an earlier part of this discussion, about three-quarters of colleges and universities plan on some sort of on-campus educational program this fall, and that likely means sports will return in some form as well. But they will be different from before. In Iowa, for instance, the governor has mandated a 50% maximum occupancy at any sports venue. Difficulty number one here is that more seats than that have likely already been sold in the big stadiums and arenas. Then cut your normal gate revenues by half and see how your athletic budget looks now.

In normal times, my knees and the head of the guy in front of me in the stands are socially distanced by only a couple of inches. Filling every other seat does not come close to the CDC-recommended 6-foot distancing. And since loud talking and singing have been implicated in so-called “super-spreader events,” those big-number virus transmissions, we are about to experiment with some really big “Petri dishes” this football season. Come basketball season, you have to add to the contagion risk the riskier indoor arena. Recirculated air and longer exposures to indoor air have been shown to increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Will the student-athletes return? And should they?

My prior post dealt with the broader question of how many students will choose to stay away from a college campus this fall because of the risks and the changes to the campus experience. For the student-athlete, however, this raises additional difficult questions. You can typically only play your sport through very close contact with other people. Plus, your financial tuition assistance is dependent on you “performing” for fellow students, alumni and fans at no additional compensation. Finally, there will likely be no “reward in pro heaven” for your on-campus efforts.

Thus, we have another experiment, this one with clear class and race implications. A well-off pre-med student can retreat to his parent’s summer camp in Maine to finish his degree online, with his own private cabin and high-speed internet. And then whine about it to the New York Times. The inner-city football or basketball player three years into a degree program does not have that luxury. He or she must literally risk long-term physical health by showing up to practice this summer and to campus in the fall.

That “free college” thing

In my post two years ago about this “third rail” of intercollegiate sports, I noted the then-hot discussion of “free college” proposals by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. While those candidacies may be dead, the ideas are not. A serious Senate bipartisan plan recently proposed $4000 in refundable tax credits for the educational retraining of people who have lost jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a start.

The little-asked question about those proposals is this: If hundreds of thousands of “student-athletes” could receive the bulk of their financial aid based just on economic need rather than playing their sport, how many would still opt to play that sport for free?

Clearly those who are convinced that there is a big-money contract waiting for them may still opt in to four years of an “unpaid sports internship.” As will those who truly love their game. But let me suggest than tens of thousands of young people might find an educational path better matched to their locale, interest and skill level than at the institution that recruits them for their sport. That, I suggest, would put many sports programs, indeed overall college financial viability on many campuses, at risk.

I remain conflicted here. I got my own college education thanks to a couple of Republican governors in the 1960s (one named Romney), who invested in expanded university facilities and generous need-based aid to keep college affordable to a massive wave of baby boomers. However, because of the financial models we have evolved to in American higher education, there could be a lot of shake-out for those institutions too dependent on their existing models.

I would place bets that a wide-swath “free college” plan will not materialize in the next decade, no matter who is elected president. Like it or not, that priority has already slipped down the “to do” list for even the most progressive politicians. However, tough economic times and a lot of money directed toward non-sports-tied educational retraining will, I contend, mean that a significant number of “student-athletes” will pass on the part after the dash if they can. And American higher education will definitely feel the downstream effects of that shift.


  1. It is important to note that most European countries have a quite-brutal early sorting of students during secondary education, separating those who get the opportunity to seek a university slot from those who will be diverted into vocational programs. While opportunities for “moving over the class divide” have improved over the years, competitive collegiate sports do not bring that opportunity as they sometimes do in the U.S.

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