The news has not been good for high-profile college athletic departments. In the last year alone, there has been a sexual-abuse scandal at Michigan State; a domestic-violence scandal at Ohio State; the needless death of a football player at Maryland; and plenty of the “normal corruption” we have come to associate with college sports—illegal payments to top recruits, and academic fraud aimed at keeping players on the field.

The NCAA, one of our least-trusted institutions, has done a poor job of managing compliance and of articulating why college sports are important. The NCAA’s failure puts at risk a system that has provided opportunities for tens of thousands of first-generation college students and is a source of inspiration and joy for millions, many of whom never attended college at all.

The NCAA’s problem is partly (though not entirely) one of appearances. NCAA scholarship caps limit athlete compensation to their “cost of attendance”: tuition, room and board, and a few thousand dollars for travel and other living expenses. Meanwhile, coaching salaries are the only thing rising faster than the cost of a college education itself. Stadiums are monuments to vanity: Texas A & M recently committed $500 million to the construction of its new football field. The SEC Network, a cable channel dedicated to coverage of the Southeastern Conference, now has an estimated market value of $5 billion.  

Despite all this excess, the economics of college sports do not support the charge that athletes are being exploited. First, it isn’t true that athletes are uncompensated. Tuition and room and board at many private colleges now often exceeds $70,000 a year, and the value of the education that may be obtained there may be greater still when measured by future earnings. The majority of scholarship athletes play sports in which there is little public interest, and which therefore generate little or no revenue. Even in the revenue-producing sports of football and college basketball, most programs lose money.

A modest number of players, many of them black, do contribute substantially to the most profitable programs. Those players provide a cross-subsidy to scholarship rowers, fencers, and tennis players—also dedicated and talented athletes—many of them white. The fact that this cross-subsidy operates broadly in favor of white athletes in non-revenue sports at the expense of black athletes in football and men’s basketball inflames liberal advocates (white and black) for whom racial justice is justice tout court.

But if black athletes, or indeed college athletes generally, are being exploited, someone should tell their parents. Competition for Division I athletic scholarships has never been more intense, and parents of promising sixth-graders routinely invest money and weekends in pursuit of that glory. Shouldn’t we have some faith that those parents know what is best for their kids?

Despite the common image of college athletes as square pegs in the academic system, Division I athletes actually graduate at higher rates than their classmates. The most profitable athletic departments also frequently underwrite academic scholarships. And those underpaid football and basketball stars for whom there is so much evident concern may be able to use the talents they honed in college to earn large salaries in professional sports.

Perhaps the more salient objection is that college sports entertainment has little to do with the educational mission of a university. The United States is alone in yoking a vast entertainment complex to its institutions of higher education, a curious form of American exceptionalism, and our university system does function as a kind of “B league” for the NFL and NBA. So let us admit that the college sports spectacle we have now is potentially a Frankenstein’s monster. If we’re going to have college sports at all, athletic departments must serve the institutional mission and not the other way around.

There is plenty of evidence that some schools are getting this wrong. But some of the best, such as Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Northwestern, play football and basketball on television without sacrificing institutional integrity. Social critic Christopher Lasch once wrote that “games offer renewal by substituting ideal conditions for the normal confusion of everyday life.” They also build community feeling where it otherwise might be absent—a crucial challenge in a pluralistic society.

Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images


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