Colorado football sold out zero games last season, had never sold out a full season before, and notched an abysmal 1–11 record in 2022. Yet, for every game this fall, each seat at the University of Colorado Boulder’s 50,000-seat football stadium, Folsom Field, will be filled. After hiring star coach Deion Sanders (a former NFL player widely considered to be one of the best defenders of all time), the team defeated 2022 national runners-up Texas Christian University (TCU) in the first week of the 2023 season, bringing excitement to Colorado football and turning the program into a focal point for the national media. This reversal of fortunes will benefit the university financially and reputationally. For instance, the school may benefit from the “Flutie effect,” where athletic success causes an increase in applications. At the same time, Colorado’s meteoric rise demonstrates some of the major issues facing college athletics today. Sanders’ arrival at Colorado, for instance, resulted in dozens of players losing their scholarships and being kicked off the team. Similarly, Sanders’ salary, clocking in at $29.5 million over the next five years, reflects skewed institutional priorities that are copied across the nation.
Colorado’s increasing focus on athletics also raises questions about the role of the American university as a whole. Across the nation, in universities of all shapes and sizes, sports reign supreme, both culturally and financially. Schools and wealthy donors sink millions of dollars into stadiums and facilities while important academic programs remain dangerously underfunded. Similarly, success—for students, administrators, and lawmakers—has grown to be increasingly defined by athletic rather than academic achievement. As new developments push athletics even closer to the core of university priorities, it seems as though Americans have never stopped to consider whether joining universities at the hip with quasi-professional sports teams is beneficial or just. While athletics has a place in colleges, its growing economic and cultural importance reflects a negative development in the American university system, one that could be rolled back with careful consideration of the tie between the two.
College athletics has been a major part of the American college experience for decades. Yet, over the last few years, two trends have pushed the fragile coexistence between athletics and academics to a breaking point. First, public universities are facing a crisis in funding caused by a significant drop in state support. Thus, they are forced to make up their budget shortfall with tuition money, best achieved by attracting out-of-state students who will pay full tuition. Second, in the aftermath of the pandemic, schools, students, and businesses have all jumped on increasingly outrageous opportunities to monetize athletics.
In a world where both funding and students are scarce resources, what choice do colleges have but to participate in the arms race that is college athletics?
The past few years of college athletics have seen a fundamental restructuring in how schools and conferences operate, to the detriment of fans and athletes. Schools often have dozens of sports, but only a few so-called “revenue sports,” particularly football, make money for the university. Unsurprisingly, school administrators prioritize football and other revenue-generating sports when considering their athletic priorities as a whole.
While hundreds of schools have large football programs, the power is concentrated among schools in “Power 5” conferences, which comprise 69 of the most popular football schools in America—mostly flagship state universities. In the last few years, however, these schools have seemingly been more concerned with how to extract as much money as possible from their football programs than their massive student bodies.
The Power 5 conferences have been largely regional until now, allowing schools to play regularly against geographic rivals. This structure also limits travel costs and time, especially for the member schools’ smaller sports teams, which are less likely to be able to take chartered planes than the football or basketball teams. But recently, lucrative television rights deals have incentivized schools to switch conferences in search of more revenue—to disastrous effect. For example, Colorado’s current conference, the Pac-12, has fallen apart this year as many teams have left in favor of other conferences. These schools, all from western US states, have left for regional conferences across the country, creating some odd pairings. Stanford and UC Berkeley, for example, were some of the last schools to flee the sinking ship of the Pac-12; their desperate scramble to join a prestigious conference found them a home in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which, until now, had been a regional conference centered on East Coast schools.
As college sports have become increasingly professionalized, the concept of the student-athlete has also changed. For decades, the NCAA, the governing body for college sports, had banned athletes from accepting any payments or gifts besides their scholarships, under the guise of amateurism. For players, amateurism rules prevented them from financially supporting themselves, even though in many cases they created millions for their schools. One member of the University of Connecticut’s championship-winning men’s basketball team, Shabazz Napier, for example, recounted how he often did not have enough money to buy food in 2014. However, in 2021, the Supreme Court shocked the system and ruled against the NCAA, opening the door for athlete payments.
The NCAA was caught flat-footed, forced to suddenly create the system for student payments that they had staunchly fought against. The system they devised centered around name, image, and likeness (NIL) payments, essentially allowing students to accept endorsements but not direct payments from their programs. This change has given student-athletes a source of income but has also created new problems. For example, the NIL system is weighted heavily toward the most famous and marketable athletes. Colleges have also managed to circumvent the ban on paying players directly by having wealthy alums offer star recruits lucrative NIL deals contingent on their attendance at the alum’s university of choice. This system brings us much, much closer to the world of professional sports and wreaks havoc on colleges’ educational priorities. In the future, the NCAA should lead the push to move toward a more sensible NIL system—one that allows all players to make a living while cutting out the egregious aspects of professionalism.
The fight for revenue has exposed the fundamental lie of college athletics, that of the “student-athlete,” with an emphasis on the student. Schools, and the NCAA, use the term and related initiatives to argue that college athletics enhances academics, focusing on the benefits of scholarships and recruitment. When many of these ‘student-athletes’ are crisscrossing the continental United States each weekend in chartered jets and playing in stadiums that rival or exceed those of the NFL or NBA, this facade comes crashing down. ‘Student–athletes’ in revenue sports are not primarily students.
The focus on revenue has also harmed athletes in other sports. Due to the more dispersed conferences, athletes in all sports will be forced to travel all over the country to compete; the only difference is that athletes of lower-level sports have less access to efficient transportation and funding. The ACC is now a national conference. The Big Ten, formerly confined to the Upper Midwest, now ranges from Los Angeles to New Jersey. In all sports, the “student-athlete” experience has been harmed due to the pursuit of more and more money. Legislators can and should act against conference realignment; it hurts student-athletes and is largely not supported by fans, who treasure the traditional rivalries that realignment removes. However, in the arms race for revenue and prestige, it would be harmful for any individual school or state to opt out of the growing college athletics system.
Debates over the nature of college athletics in America often gloss over a more subtle issue: College sports in the United States are a massive global outlier. No other country in the world has hugely popular sports teams attached to the hip of most of its universities. Most of the Power 5 schools are huge state schools, yet their presidents and boards often seem more concerned with athletics programs than the task of educating tens of thousands of students. This focus does not make sense along purely financial lines, as the vast majority of schools spend more on athletics than they bring in. The balance between the two competing interests is fragile, and if schools favor athletics even more, both culturally and financially, it would have disastrous consequences for American higher education.
As long as college sports provide revenue for schools, they will remain nationally relevant. However, policymakers at the university, state, and national levels can combat some of their more pernicious aspects. For instance, Congress or the NCAA could implement a more effective framework for paying athletes, one that provides them with a portion of the revenue they created while avoiding the pitfalls of the NIL system. Similarly, the conference structure and its role in TV rights deals should be dismantled. America’s college sports are a source of national pride and entertainment, but we should not forsake our higher education system on their behalf.