Here we are again with Michigan athletics in the news for something other than a win-loss record or the product on the field. This time the media attention is for criticism from University President Mark Schlissel of the general athletic culture and its role within the academic institution.

David Harris

The continued patter of athletics having a dominant role in the media coverage of the University can be traced to one simple reason: people want football, basketball, hockey and the other myriad of sports, are willing to pay for said methods of entertainment, and thus are given what they want. It’s the very basis of capitalism, in which a demand is filled with a service for the benefit of the producer and utility of the consumer. This makes the American sports industry a dominant force both economically and socially, and often dominant over other newsworthy events at the University.

This dominance of college athletics creates a myriad of problems. It forces the NCAA and the athletic departments of its member schools to act both as a business and an altruistic organization providing educational opportunity and other opportunities to student-athletes. The NCAA brings in more than $870 million in revenue a year, and Michigan itself has revenues totaling over $140 million, while at the same time championing the free educational opportunities provided for the very students they profit off of via its monopoly. The sheer amount of money thrown around in college athletics exposes the hypocrisy that the NCAA continues to try to balance but refuses to acknowledge.

This is not just a problem of the alleged bending of admissions for athletes or the time commitments involved for student-athletes. College sports have become tightly intertwined with not just the university experience but American culture itself. Because in the end, the basic desires of fans are to watch football, to watch their favorite school and to watch their favorite school be good at football, and thus a university is driven to throw large sums of money around to meet these demands.

Colleges often spend more on coach salaries than they do on compensated tuition for scholarship athletes. Many schools even charge student fees that go directly toward the university’s athletic department (commendably, Michigan does not charge these fees, contributing in part to our higher-than-average ticket prices). And as a showing of the large demand that brings in the money to make it all possible, the 15 biggest stadiums in the United States are all college football stadiums. For big-time programs, football and other sports have become one of the greatest ways to market the school; for smaller schools without the resources, it becomes a seemingly necessary burden.

Athletics has also been tied to the very reasons for applying and attending a school, and the increase in applicants to a school with newfound athletic success is called the “Flutie Effect,” named after the increase in admissions to Boston College after quarterback Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary win in 1984 over the University of Miami (although the correlation in this specific instance is disputed). Such an effect is also said to have occurred at George Mason and Butler after their NCAA basketball tournament runs, Appalachian State after its victory over Michigan in 2007, and Boise State, Northern Iowa and Auburn after recent football successes.

Michigan itself was even a launching point for the commercialization of college athletics with the marketing juggernaut that was the Fab Five. Athletic royalties spiked from $2 million in 1990-91 to $6.2 million in 1993-94, the Fab Five’s last season. The number of applications even climbed from 17,744 in 1991 to 19,687 in 1996, a 36-percent climb that then Director of Admissions Ted Spencer was reluctant to correlate specifically to athletics, but noted that in his own personal experience many students were drawn to the University because of them.

Until there are enough negative externalities to warrant changing the system (which may not be far off with the danger of concussions), college sports will continue to be an extremely marketable enterprise. Yet the consequences of this enterprise interfering with the academic missions of the NCAA and its institutions will continue to be a contentious issue without a total reshaping of the culture and role of college athletics.

Schlissel may have apologized and clarified some of his remarks, but his remarks on the role of athletics within the University show a willingness to make Michigan a leader in redefining what college athletics look like. The NCAA will look incredibly different as soon as the next decade, perhaps with players being paid, a renewed emphasis on academics and graduation or by any other number of significant reforms that will be necessary for the NCAA. Despite current issues, it is clear that there is a place for college athletics and that much value that can come from them. Michigan must be at the forefront in defining the right role for athletics within the context of the University’s mission, and also as a leading institution in shaping the inevitably changing landscape of the NCAA.

David Harris can be reached at daharr@umich.edu.

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