Dump the sports, keep the radio on


Radio, radio...

Inside Higher Ed ran a story this week about the demise of Miami University’s independent NPR-affiliated radio station, WMUB.  Historiann lived in Oxford from 1997-2001, owned a home there, and was a responsible public radio member/listener.  We listened to the station all day long–even “Mama Jazz” in the evenings.  I volunteered to answer phones on the early morning shift for their fund drives.

I understand that in these lean budgetary years, programs that are not “mission-critical” will get the ax.  My question is this:  why are college  sports teams ever seen as “mission-critical?”  The marquee sports–men’s football and men’s basketball–involve only a tiny handful of students who are unrepresentative of the student body on most campuses (since women are the majority of college students.)  Why not just drop out of the NCAA and turn them into club sports, as so many women’s teams and other men’s teams are?  Early in this decade, Miami University built a fancy new academic building down by their playing fields that is only for the use of student athletes.  It was apparently too much for their preciousnesses to hike up to a classroom building or the library to get their homework done!  Why the superstar treatment?  I know it’s the “Cradle of Coaches,” but it has produced only one NFL player in recent memory?  (And no, the vast majority of sports programs don’t make money–they consume it.)  Why does higher ed agree to run a free double- and triple-A league for the NBA and the NFL?  MLB and the NHL have done just fine, thank you very much, without this kind of welfare giveaway.

WMUB was a valuable service in a community that didn’t have a daily newspaper.  It employed student interns who wanted to get experience in broadcast media.  (I occasionally tune in to the voice of one of those former interns from the 1990s reading the news out here on Wyoming Public Radio.)  While community members may attend a college game or two every season, they surely tuned into WMUB in much greater numbers.  On bad weather days, it’s where we all went to pray for news of a snow day.  There is clearly a much better argument that WMUB was mission-critical, if the mission of higher education is, you know, education instead of entertainment and craven servility to the NBA and the NFL.  WMUB clearly contributed much more to the community than the sports teams.  Dump the teams, and keep the radio on.

0 thoughts on “Dump the sports, keep the radio on

  1. Why, you seem to have gone from dystopian to utopian, Historiann! But I think you put your finger on the central point when you noted that “WMUB was a valuable service”: the “business model” of higher education is generally opposed to providing services solely because they are good or nice, and much more in favor of “services” that are perceived as “delivering” something of value. And if most college sports programs run in the red, many administrations and foundations would argue that the big sports at least serve as branding agents, and that the service that sports (epsecially football and basketball) provide to alumni is quite powerfully focused on exactly those folks who may contribute substantially to the university, even if only to the athletic programs. Obviously, an NPR affiliate is less focused and (and more fcoused on raising funds for itself than for the university).

    WMUB apparently did not do the “right” kind of branding. And universities often seem to have decided, as you point out, that they are best off branding themselves as providing the “college experience” rather than providing an education (perhaps linked to the “tracking” issue I wrote about before).

    And while I understand that sports may seem to serve few students, I had one teacher in high school who once told me that his curve ball paid his way through college. May we should ask for more academic scholarships, but some athletic scholarships still do good in the world, too. Club sports wouldn’t be able to do that.

    Dump, rather, the business model and remember that as often as administrations encourage us and our students to pursue a “service learning” model, we should insist that universities continue to provide a range of services (of which sports may be one) themselves.

    Go Buckeyes!


  2. Yeah, I’m not for cutting college sports, just to cut them, although programs where results are perennially dismal should be reviewed. First off, unless we’re ready to let go of the NFL altogether, college football is a must because high school graduates have no business playing professional ball. And unlike basketball or tennis, college football teams field a relatively large number of players, many of whom wouldn’t even have the chance to sniff at a college-level course without the scholarship.

    Plus I think there’s something to be said for creating a campus identity around sports, where young adults can say they are a part of something constructive and not just limited to their majors or academic interests. The sad truth is, for a lot of schools, cutting marquee programs will affect admissions because even the most academically elite of these powerhouses get a lot of their publicity from their sports appearances on the national stage. This is especially true, I think, for private institutions that depend on out-of-state admissions. Many of these schools would be unknown to out-of-state students if it weren’t for football or basketball.

    The solution shouldn’t be to cut campus radio, which serves communities as well as students. But sports do serve communities and students as well, as Tom points out.


  3. I got to thinking on that student evaluation thread: if students are qualified to assess pedagogy based on the fact that their tuition check didn’t bounce and they showed up the day the “instrument” was handed out, they could probably handle contracting, procurement, alumni affairs, legislative liason, long-range budgeting, library acquisition, maintenance, security, and a bunch of other stuff, to say nothing of student life. With a major dump of executive vice presidents, associate provosts, and program managers, we here in Bituminosia could look forward to the next generation of Big Bens and still listen to foreign policy critiques on WSTL!

    I tried to give away two “Big Ben” buttons in three classes this week and could only get one taker. Pretty strange. I guess everybody was down at the parade!


  4. ADM has the right idea–end the giveaways to the NFL and the NBA. Personally, I think the college education might be better used at the end of the players’ careers than at the beginning. I’m actually very sympathetic to the plight of the “student athlete,” who’s being asked to do two full-time jobs at the same time. I don’t think much quality education happens when it comes along with a big sports scholarship–and if the guys blow their knees out at age 24, they’re left with little to fall back on.

    Thefrogprincess: “college football is a must because high school graduates have no business playing professional ball.” Well, OK–but that’s the NFL’s problem, that’s not my university’s problem to solve. Maybe we could find a middle ground wherein the NFL underwrites all of the costs of college football programs, rather than relying on universities and their funders to foot the bill. In my utopian world, that would be just fine, so long as the NFL pays for everything.

    Think of all of the scholarships that would be fundable without the damned sports programs hoovering up all of the dough! States could offer free or nearly-free tuition to thousands of young people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford college. That way, Tom’s high school teacher (or his equivalent now) could still go to college. And offering scholarships to students seems to be more mission-critical than running a free farm club for the NFL and NBA. No coaches to pay, no expensive facilities to build and maintain. It’ll be GREAT.


  5. At my university they are cutting programs because the state is taking back several hundred million in funding because of the deficit. That includes financial aid, teachers, etc… i.e. all the, you know, useful stuff.

    At the same time they are asking for 150 million in State Aid, while they will fundraise for the other 150 million to build a new football stadium. They claim that since the athletic team is self funding (suuureee…), that it doesn’t matter. The stadiums will bring jobs! (undetermined amount and nebulous details on this) and excitement to the university!

    I just think it looks awfully strange when a school is cutting its academic services and then building a fancy new stadium in the midst of bad economic times. That’s going to create tension amongst faculty, at least one would think.

    They claim the excitement over a new stadium will bring more people to donate to the university. Why not ask for that money and then ahve a goal to make by university the best damn public school…and then get money from that?

    Besides….not that I even care (I don’t know who was in the superbowl)…but the team clamoring for a new stadium didn’t win a single game the entire year.


  6. I wanted to point out this in Tom’s response:

    And while I understand that sports may seem to serve few students, I had one teacher in high school who once told me that his curve ball paid his way through college. May we should ask for more academic scholarships, but some athletic scholarships still do good in the world, too. Club sports wouldn’t be able to do that.

    It’s that rationalization that keeps programs around. As long as these vastly expensive programs are used to justify putting a few kids who ‘might not have made it’ into college without it, they will stick around.

    That’s a bull argument. Straight up bull. The costs do not outweigh the benefits. Not only could MORE students be helped by the funding that is heading towards the athletic scholarships and programs, but those students might have to focus on academics in high school to prepare them for an ACADEMIC Higher ed institution.

    Some of these kids–and I hate to say it like this–shouldn’t be here. The football program knows this and has helped to get basically geology courses known as ‘Rocks for Jocks’ and god forbid you actually want to take Swahili…that has been taken over every quarter by football players who need to get their language requirement. And why? Because they shouldn’t have been there anyways and the school helped to ‘wink, nudge’ certain classes into being easier for the players.


  7. @Mikail–

    My point was simply that sports may in fact provide a service to the university, its students, and its alumni; they may bring some students to school on scholarships; etc. And universities should be funding all sorts of (expensive and not obviously financially rewarding) “services.”

    Entertaining the public and the alums is one service sports programs provide: but I would totally agree with Historiann that it shouldn’t be the only one! I guess I just think we might do best to frame the debate not over which kind of entertainment (e.g., sports vs public radio; sports vs. academics) we prefer to provide, and encourage administrators (who tend to like “service learning”) that providing other sorts of services might be good modeling for our institutions to engage in.

    But by definition, services cost more than their (direct) benefits, and thus rarely make financial sense from the “business model” perspective.

    Which is why universities should try to understand themselves as services, not businesses.


  8. After reading the last several posts and reflecting on my own institution’s situation, I propose the following:

    1) Let’s have outcomes and assessment models for administrators and their various programs. After all, if we’re going to be accountable, let’s ALL be accountable;

    2) Develop a priority ranking system for the various elements of the “university experience” so that, when the belt tightening times arrive, we don’t have to go through the crazy wrestling match with programs that are truly extra-curricular, if not completely extraneous. Last time I checked, the degree universities grant is based upon successful completion of academic programs (though my president has recently discussed his desire for our students to graduate with an extra-curricular transcript to go along with the “real” one!)


  9. The monetary value of sports depends on the institution — Buzz brought home a budget analysis thingy from a faculty meeting today, which showed that the athletics program brings more income (from ticket sales, broadcasting agreements, licensing, or whatever) than it costs to run. This is the state school, however, which has a fairly strong local following… I’d estimate 50% of the cars in the area have either some Gamecock or Clemson tiger (their big rivals) paraphernalia. So, USC has some excuse for a well-funded sports program (although I’m beginning to get peeved by the spam encouraging me to sign up for student tickets to the basketball game so their “Garnet Army” can cheer… seriously? Garnet Army? I am SOOOO not interested.) But that’s an unusual case.

    Dumping money into a non-profitable program is good, if you are performing a public service. I’d wager more of the public benefited from WMBU than benefits from Miami’s sports teams. I grew up just 30 minutes away, and I couldn’t tell you what Miami’s mascot is or anything interesting their sports teams ever did. University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, on the other hand, I was familiar with. I guess their teams didn’t totally suck. (And, I think they each have NPR stations still — WGUC and WVXU.)

    It is intriguing that the “university experience” should correlate strongly with what a regular, non-college-graduate would experience — drinking and cheering on a sports team. Why the hell would you pay good money for that? I want my damn degree, thankyouverymuch!


  10. There’s nothing really I can say that would change anybody’s mind about the value of college sports so I’ll just write about it on my blog to avoid hijacking the conversation. I will say, though, that sports, whether people like it or not, are an important part of the college experience for a lot of students and is a big reason a lot of students go to certain schools. Should schools with athletic teams that consistently lose and suck up valuable funds be building new stadiums in these economic times? Of course not. But as I’ve gotten deeper into academia, I’ve noticed a real antipathy to college sports among graduate student colleagues and faculty members that goes beyond concerns about the use of funds. Let’s be honest: the funds that go to sports wouldn’t automatically be siphoned into education and scholarships if these programs were eliminated. The money probably wouldn’t be donated at all.


  11. I get what you’re saying, thefrogprincess, but why should institutions encourage the fact that sports are why students choose schools? That’s like saying that the party school reputation really brings in a lot of students on certain campuses, so the school should offer free bottles of Jack Daniels Black and vanilla vodka in the freshman orientation. Just because it motivates students doesn’t make it good or proper.

    Funny, isn’t it, that Amherst College, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swathmore, Oberlin, Kenyon, Grinnell, and the like all manage to have great academic reputations, decent endowments, and strong brand recognition without offering the NBA and the NFL free farm clubs? I wonder if there’s a connection?

    How do they do it? And why can’t we?

    I’d argue that Miami U. is even better recognized in Ohio for its academic quality than for its super-duper sports teams. And, I will note: I’ve never heard of college radio DJs or NPR interns gang-raping or otherwise assaulting or abusing fellow students. It just never seems to come up, does it?


  12. Historiann, I don’t think sports and the party culture are equivalent. Nor am I saying that sports are necessary to a good college experience. The schools you’ve listed are great schools and I wouldn’t suggest that schools without such programs need to invest in basketball or football, although I will add that Kenyon has been a swimming powerhouse for nearly 30 years. There may be no more time-intensive sport than swimming and both the swimmers I knew in college and the swimmers I’ve taught at my current institution (clearly not Kenyon) spent the vast majority of the fall and winter utterly ragged, clearly not ideal conditions for learning. Plus for every Kenyon, Wellesley, and Grinnell, there is a Wake Forest, a Davidson, a Johns Hopkins (lacrosse), a UVA, etc. What I am saying is that sports don’t automatically get in the way of the academic work of universities and colleges.

    I also sympathize with the plight of the college radio programs which, as I mentioned earlier, provide valuable services to their communities and shouldn’t be cut just because it’s expedient to do so. But seriously, athletes are not the only students raping and assaulting students. They’re just the only ones who can be nationally embarrassed when they do so (even if they’re not convicted.) But there are plenty of men who aren’t athletes who perpetrate sex crimes against their peers, who get away with it, and whose crimes aren’t national news.


  13. Erica is right that at some schools football and basketball are profitable ventures. They get professional-class athletes to play without adequate compensation and rake in the TV revenues. Sounds like exploitation. In addition, some universities build name recognition from sports teams. Not to pick on anybody, but I don’t think I have ever heard the Crimson Tide’s university mentioned in relation to academics.

    I think historiann is on to something in saying that sports can take resources away from other programs. I think some relatively younger universities have built academic reputations in part by avoiding costly sports teams. It’s pathetic when universities try to play the sports game. I was in Florida last summer and saw ads for Florida Atlantic’s football team. I suppose people who go to FAU don’t want to cheer for the Canes or the Gators, or maybe it was a response to the Dolphins’ string of bad seasons (reversed this year with a trip to the playoffs).

    Tom cracks me up…universities entertaining people as a service! Maybe they can showcase pole dancing as a service. And sports culture as service learning!! Good one, Tom.


  14. Thefrogprincess, you’re a good sport (no pun intended.) I absolutely support club sports and small-time competition–they’re not antithetical to the work of a university. I just think the for-profit, big-business, farm team giveaway sports are welfare for the NBA and the NFL, and that those organizations should field their own farm clubs if they don’t want to recruit 17- and 18-year olds.

    I like K.N. suggestion that if it’s not a graduation requirement, then it’s not mission-critical. Everything that’s not on the transcript should be on the chopping block, if cuts are inevitable. Mikhail’s story about the $300M stadium that’s greenlighted while cutting academic programs is a travesty. If people go to college games for the games, then club sports will still generate the publicity and good will that the welfare teams generate. If, on the other hand, people support college sports for the proximity to celebrity and entertainment and the possibility of painting your body blue or red to get on national TV–well, I don’t see at all how that is mission-critical.

    I guess the cryin’ shame of it all is that it COSTS ALMOST NOTHING TO BE ACADEMICALLY STRONG IN THE HUMANITIES. Any school looking to up its national rankings should invest in their CLAs. No expensive labs or fancy research facilities need be built, and sad to say, it won’t take a half a million in salary to recruit people like it seems to for college coaches. All you have to do is hire good people and give them reasonably small classes to teach, and they’ll take care of the rest.


  15. I agree with Historiann on this one. I think it does boil down to whether we are an academic institution or a sports arena, b/c in this economic climate we don’t seem able to be both. I’ll use my uni as an example:

    Education is often compromised for sports not only in terms of spending priorities but also educational attainment. The salary differentials @ my uni mean that 1 coach = 10 junior faculty (roughly). Despite a scandal about sports related grade inflation 10 years ago, I routinely have cheerleaders and sports folks who’ve missed 2/3 of class demanding to know why they didn’t get an A. Last year took the cake: an international student on the tennis team attended 4 classes, turned in no assignments, and when I told her she was getting an F, I called into the coaches office and told how much the school spent to get her here and that she had better pass.

    I agree with frog princess that sports does provide an entry point into college for many students who might not otherwise afford it but what good is that entry point if they are consistently cheated out of said education. (probably starting in high school)

    There is also the issue of transferable skills: college radio has social capital that transfers to many arenas as well job related skills (you can get a job in radio, broadcasting, journalism, etc). Most college athletes on the other hand will never go pro, there is no social capital (except a small niche), and job skills are less apparent (team building and team work being skills that come to mind). I also see connections between classroom learning and several underfunded or now defunct programs like college radio, the school paper, political and social clubs, etc. that I’m not sure are there in sports . . .

    At the same time, I think I just read the University of Oregon got a billion+ donation from Nike b/c of the Ducks that is ensuring all of their programs, departments, and new hires are secure. So there is always the exception.


  16. That’s like saying that the party school reputation really brings in a lot of students on certain campuses, so the school should offer free bottles of Jack Daniels Black and vanilla vodka in the freshman orientation. Just because it motivates students doesn’t make it good or proper.

    Somewhat off-topic, that reminded me of how I was repeatedly told on my school tour of MIT, “we’re actually a really big party school, not just a bunch of nerds studying all the time!” Then my sophomore year, a freshman died when he drank too much and was basically left by his fraternity brothers to drown in his own vomit. Suddenly it was NOT COOL to mention that there was lots of fun going on at MIT.


  17. Erica, I remember that–was it 1994? I had just moved to Boston I think when that happened. (Yeah, lots of “fun,” puking your guts out or drinking yourself to death…)

    Again, universities should be educating and elevating people’s tastes, not catering to what they think is cool when they’re 17. (And I mean “elevating” not in a snobbish way, but in a “here is your introduction to adulthood” kind of a way: here are some great books that will make you ponder human nature, historical change over time, and what makes a life worth living.)


  18. I’m pretty sure every detailed study that has been done had concluded that mens’ football and basketball do not, in the end, generate more revenue for a university than they consume. Many schools claim this, but it depends on creative accounting to hide substantial amounts of expenses. Here’s just one I remember reading about – 8$80,000 in laundry soap PER MONTH to launder uniforms. Which doesn’t include washing machines, hot water, labor, dryers, electricity.

    Coaches, trainers, doctors, support staff, tutors, ticket sales and security staff – the labor costs are huge. Travel expenses for the team, for all the people named previously, band, cheerleaders etc. are huge. Recruitment and tuition waivers eat up a lot of money. Marketing the team costs a lot. Maintaining practice facilities costs a lot. Lawyers are kept on retainer to do “athlete clean up.”

    Then there are the supplies – uniforms, practice and game equipment, on and on. And most universities maintain special facilities – weight rooms, gyms, spas etc that are “athlete only” as well. Only a fraction of the actual costs get tallied and charged to the teams.

    There have been books about this, and reporting by the Chron, etc. Don’t have time to compile a link list but easy enough to find I hope.


  19. Pingback: sports and the academy « lines ever more unclear

  20. @Historiann — I started there in 1996, so I think it was 1997. There was another frat guy who got drunk and fell down an elevator shaft later that year (only one floor, and survived with minor injuries), it was not a good time for the reputation of the fraternity lifestyle! There was a death in a dorm a year or two after that, from suffocation while huffing nitrous oxide. Young adults are likely to do stupid stuff like abuse alcohol or drugs, whether they’re in college or not. But advertising that as part of “our university experience” is kinda twisted, something which I did not appreciate until classmates died.


  21. Pingback: Reforming higher ed: unleash the power of the free market! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  22. Pingback: Pointless “gotcha” article, or “gotcha?” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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