Often when there is talk of balancing school budgets, the argument about funding sports programs begins. The basic claim made is that sports by definition are extra-curricular activities; they are not part of regular academics. Anytime a budget is trimmed, it is the extras that are removed first. Others argue that the importance of teaching skills associated with sports (e.g., teamwork) and physical fitness are equally as valuable as other subjects like reading, writing, and math. All of this fits into the larger context of a lack of definition for what Americans want from education. Education budgets can clearly not sustain being the catch all and panacea for everything in our culture.
In a letter to PostBulletin.com, Bruce Atkinson made a reasonable suggestion. He stated that just as we are examining all other areas of school budgets, we should look carefully at the costs for funding sports programs and their related administration and consider eliminating them (6 May, 2012).
I would take Atkinson’s suggestion into a slightly more positive direction. Rather than getting bogged down in the “to be or not to be” discussion, it may be more productive in preserving both athletics and academics if we look first at how each can be more fiscally sound; then at the ways each may be able to support the other.
Existing Sports Budget Contributions
High school sports programs already enact various means of supporting or entirely paying for their programs by such practices as:
• Activity fees that students pay toward each sport they want to participate in annually (Loh, S., 24 April, 2011).
• Corporate sponsors who fund part or all of a sport in exchange for free advertising by having their company name on clothing, facilities, or other merchandise (Loh, S., 24 April, 2011).
• Self-funding through booster clubs (Loh, S., 24 April, 2011).
• Ticket sales, concession stand revenue, and other fundraising events (often part of the booster club’s self-funding efforts).
Although some of these same practices are in place for postsecondary athletics, there are some additional means of external support. For example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) provided the following information for 2009-2010:
• 86% of the organization’s revenue comes from media rights and 14% from championships (mostly ticket sales).
• About 60% (a bit over $433 million in 2009-2010) of all revenue is distributed to Division I members annually.
• Some of the distributed funds go directly to support academics.
• The rest goes toward supporting the sports programs at member institutions (e.g., salaries, financial aid for student-athletes, facility maintenance, etc.)
• Distribution is based in part on which institutions generate the most funds; this is a controversial area.
• College athletic programs spend about $10.5 billion (2009-2010) annually with a total revenue estimated at $10.6 billion (2008-2009). [Note: This is fairly even.]
• NCAA contributions to individual postsecondary institutions at best pay about 3.3% of their sports budgets although there are some additional indirect means of support. (2012)
It should be kept in mind that there are other athletic associations supporting sports at the postsecondary level, but the NCAA is the largest. The bottom line, however, is that these helpful steps do not solve the financial dilemma.
Sports Budget Big Picture
The first step in reviewing the budget allotment for sports is to see exactly how much of the budget is devoted to athletics. The actual amount is surprisingly low at the secondary level. Sam Elias, a high school athletic director in Hershey, Pennsylvania, stated that sports programs in high schools typically constitute about 1.5% of the total school budget. He added that “When schools have 50 to 60 percent of a student body participating in sports and it’s costing the community 1.5 percent, that’s a very good return” (qtd. Loh, S., 24 April, 2011).
Sports is also not a major drain on the overall budget at some postsecondary institutions where intercollegiate sports are either low-key or non-existent, according to a Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) study (Denhart, M., Willwock, R., & Vedder, R., “The Academics Athletics Trade-off,” April 2009, p. 40). The authors provide the University of Chicago, M.I.T., and Cal Tech as examples.
However, the CCAP report points out, there are schools where sports has become the dominant focus over academics, a distraction from the true purpose of universities, and a drain on school budgets when this is not necessary (Denhart, M., Willwock, R., & Vedder, R., “The Academics Athletics Trade-off,” April 2009, p. 40). The CCAP emphasized the following:
• Schools are accepting academically unprepared students, which in turn, drags down the reputation of the university.
• Student-athletes tend to gather in less strenuous academic majors and areas to find ways of circumventing academic achievement regulations for athletes.
• Regular support, regulation, and enforcement of academic expectations for student-athletes and programs are a major distraction and drain on resources.
• Intercollegiate sports are not a good investment for almost all postsecondary institutions (e.g., of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, only 19 had sports programs that could be liberally labeled ‘profitable’ and only 16 other broke even).
• Expenditures per athlete have outpaced revenues.
• Winning sports teams have not been documented as a stable incentive for bringing in large donations that profit school budgets.
Lead by Example
One of the qualities sports builds into participation is leadership. Both Atkinson (6 May, 2012) and the CCAP (April 2009) make the same call for athletic budget reform to start at the top. Both point out that one of the largest drains on the budget for sports programs comes from administration. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics equates the position of athletic director with that of principal and suggests an average starting salary nationally of about $87,000. The CCAP stated that in 2006, 48 head football coaches made over $1 million annually and that 69 of them made more than their respective university presidents (April 2009, p. 41). The CCAP also points out that travel expenses along with room and board for athletes are also a large drain on school budgets (April 2009, p. 42).
Therefore, the CCAP suggested that about two dozen FBS schools with good reputations and about eight Ivy League school presidents take the lead to:
• Reduce the length of seasons, number of games, size of coaching staffs, and the number of permissible players in football and perhaps other sports;
• Play at least 80 percent of their matches with other schools adhering to these reform principles;
• Form at least two new conferences (seriously gutting five major existing conferences in the process);
• Outlaw redshirting and other practices that detract from emphasizing the primacy of academic matters even for athletes;
• Prohibit play during examination periods;
• Put limits on coaches salaries and put a limit on administrative staff size;
• Insist that athletic departments be under the control of a university official such as the Provost;
• Put strict limits on the size of institutional subsidy for the athletic programs;
• Put academic officials in firm control of changes in conference/ national association policies (or at least give them a veto power);
• Strictly limit post-season participation in bowl games, etc (April 2009, p. 42-43).
Some of the above reforms could also be applied at the secondary level.
Given the benefits that athletic programs bring to schools and their constituents, the arguments to eliminate sports seems misguided. On the other hand, ideas like the suggestions of the CCAP seem reasonable in helping both secondary and postsecondary institutions move forward on a more stable financial foundation and within a more academically defined context.
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