Like a lot of other people, I spent a big chunk of my Thanksgiving weekend watching college football. (In case you were wondering, I’m still suffering over the fact that Auburn lost.) And as is often the case when I watch college sports, I found myself wondering about the very peculiar idea of the athletic scholarship.
Universities of all kinds in the United States go to great lengths to attract elite athletes to their schools. At the big football schools—Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State—that means accepting athletes with lower SAT scores than the balance of the student body, and offering them full rides.
First — how significant is the athlete SAT “discount,” exactly?
According to an analysis a few years back by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, football players at the University of Florida scored on average 346 points lower on their SATs than the rest of the student body. (The SAT is scored out of 1600.) At UCLA, the gap between the SAT scores of all athletes and everyone else was 247 points. The point isn’t to say athletes are dumber or less deserving. It’s that, in an absurdly competitive college-admissions system, the admissions criteria for students who happen to be athletes are wildly different from the criteria for everyone else.
At a school like Harvard, meanwhile, something similar happens with children of alumni — or “legacies” as they’re called. Harvard really likes the children of alumni, for obvious reasons: The school has been actively engaged in the reproduction of privilege for hundreds of years. Exclusivity bolsters the Harvard brand and its bottom line. Why stop now? But Harvard is also really, really interested in bringing in kids who are good at things like rowing and fencing and running. Admission rates at Harvard for the Class of 2017 were nine times higher for both legacy kids and recruited athletes than for everyone else, according to work by economists Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler, and Tyler Ransom.
The Varsity Blues scandal of a few years back, if you recall, broke when a Los Angeles businessman named Morrie Tobin confessed to the FBI that the coach of the Yale women’s soccer team had offered to get Tobin’s daughter into Yale for $450,000. Apparently if the coach of the Yale soccer team goes to the Yale admissions officer and says this random student from Los Angeles is a really, really good striker (or whatever)—presto, that kid is in.
What's with all this love for athletes?
Let’s deal with the most obvious argument first. Big-time college sports, people always say, mean big money for universities. Really? Let’s take Ohio State, known as one of the biggest sports schools in the country. Its athletic department had revenues of $233 million last year. They spent $215 million, for a profit of $18 million. The football program, not surprisingly, was the biggest money earner: It brought in $115 million and spent $52 million. These are not impressive numbers. Ohio State has an annual budget of $7.5 billion. The entire athletic department could go away and Ohio State would survive unscathed. (By the way, I’m not sure whether the athletic department numbers count the cost of scholarships against the department’s revenue. If they don’t, that $18-million profit gets a whole lot smaller.)
Second argument: Athletic scholarships give opportunities to students who would not otherwise either get into college or be able to afford college. This is absolutely true! But if a college really wants to give opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, why not just identify those students directly, and give them financial aid? Ohio State graduates 69 percent of its football players and just 60 percent of its black football players. I’m assuming that one reason those numbers are so low is that football players at college are expected to spend a lot of time practicing and playing football when they might otherwise be studying. A football scholarship is effectively bait and switch. Here’s some money for tuition! But you’re going to have to work for it, son.
Third argument: This one is particular to the Ivy Leagues, but the logic applies elsewhere. I wrote about this one in my book David and Goliath, in a footnote. For all those people who skip footnotes, let me just reproduce it here:
If you’ve read David and Goliath, you’ll know I'm quite partial to the broader idea at play here. It is really, really hard to be in the bottom quarter of any hierarchy. The kid with the worst grades in his or her computer science class at MIT is not dumb. They are probably better at math than 99.99 percent of all college students. But they feel dumb! That’s what Glimp was talking about. But is there any evidence for Glimp’s claim that elite athletes and legacies are somehow better equipped than anyone else to handle the psychological burden of being the worst student in the class? I have no idea. But it seems weird to rest the entire massive infrastructure of college sports on this slender pillar.
Fourth argument in favor of athletic scholarships: Supporters of a focus on sports in colleges claim that participating in sports is itself an educational experience. It builds character, discipline, and teamwork. I totally agree! But college sports—and the scholarship system—are almost entirely focused on cultivating elite athletes: the MVPs, team captains, and state champions. The ancillary benefits of college sports, meanwhile, are available to anyone—not only those with exceptional talent. Even the hopelessly mediocre—who could never hope to win a place on a varsity team—learn character, discipline, and teamwork from competing in sports. And there are an awful lot more mediocre athletes roaming around universities than there are elite athletes, which suggests that we could get an awful lot more character-building bang for our buck if we focused less on the exclusive form of college sports and more on the less-exclusive variety. Isn’t the argument for athletic scholarships really just an argument for better intramural programs?
I think we’d all be better off if, when it came to reviewing prospective students, colleges were more interested in whether someone participated in sports. And a lot less interested in how well they performed. And for those students who don’t do sports at all, it would be nice if the cross-country coach went around campus knocking on people’s dorm rooms and saying: “A couple hundred of us are going out for a run later. Do you want to join us?”