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  • Writer's pictureMichael Doolittle

College sports in America: A sports-educational complex

Money matters.

It has become an integral part of the college sports landscape. The flood of money starts in the professional leagues, then cascades down to the college ranks, which in some important ways act as farm systems for the professional leagues, and finally swirls down to high school, and even youth sports leagues. Of course, we’ve had professional sports leagues for a long time. But the advent of cable tv and the increasingly huge media market created by ESPN, the NCAA, the major conferences, sports talk radio, and others, has created a tsunami of revenue over the last twenty years for the sports world. Internet connectivity and smart phones now amplify the money in sports on all levels and create new ways of bringing in revenue. New stadiums have to have lounges with multiple huge high definition televisions so fans can follow all the games and robust web streaming services allowing tens of thousands of cellphones to surf the web and follow multiple games so sports fans can follow their fantasy teams. Luxury boxes for big boosters, rich patrons, and corporate sponsors are a must.

Big money influences how decisions are made and has done more than create a number of wealthy white owners (a number of whom inherited teams from their families), media companies, and athletes. When colleges rely on their football and basketball teams to bring in huge amounts of revenue to help pay for their large athletic programs, it changes the way that they think about sports, and removes the focus from where it should be— reinforcing the positive role that sports should play in the development of young male and female athletes, particularly low income, minority, first generation college students. In turn, the athletic preference for athletes in college admissions has caused a number of high schools to increase their attention and resources to athletics, which has then caused parents to spend even more time and money on sports expenditures for their pre-high school and high school athletes in the hopes that their children might win a college scholarship or gain admission to the many selective colleges that give a big preference to athletes. The elite private schools, a former easy ticket to the Ivy League and other elite colleges, understand that the best way to improve the odds that their college matriculation lists will impress parents is to scour the country and world for some extraordinary athletes to improve their sports teams and interest college coaches. Youth sports are increasingly seen as possible tickets to admission at good schools, and so young athletes are pushed too hard and often concentrate on only one sport, which can be harmful for developing bodies.

This negative feedback loop perfectly mirrors the larger world of college admissions at the top schools where parents and students feel pressured to create resumes that will gain them admission to the most prestigious schools. In both situations, the ultimate losers are the kids themselves, who are forced to act in ways that are most likely harmful to them in the long term.

You can’t blame the kids, of course. Each responsible adult— the admissions officer, the coach, the admissions consultant hired to shepherd a hopeful applicant through the process, the specialized consultant in specific sports that promise to work with a young athlete to get admitted to colleges; the university president who wants the school to be in the news, the alumni booster, the headmaster of an elite boarding school who feels pressured to have good teams because all her peer schools do, the parent who pours resources into equipment and extra coaching and travel and tournament fees— all are acting in ways that don’t seem unreasonable. But if you add the impact of all their actions together, you get a system that ultimately serves the institutional interests of the schools, and loses sight of the needs of the students. To change a phrase that President Eisenhower famously coined in a speech at the end of his Presidency, we’ve created a sports-educational complex that is very resistant to change.

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