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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


What About Sports?

What should schools do about sports, not just in the fall, but in the post-COVID aftermath?

July 12, 2020

What are colleges going to do about sports in the fall?

The Ivy League is canceling.

As of this writing, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have decided to go “conference only,” which allows for a few weeks of delay in starting the season sometime in late September.

If anyone asked me (they didn’t), I’d tell you that college football is very unlikely this season. I base this on my belief that even if schools have students on campus to start the semester, many will find themselves forced to shut down once there is clear community spread. Having a 100 percent remote learning experience while the football team is playing sends a pretty bad message, even if it is reflective of true campus priorities.

Football players are already testing positive for the virus in summer workouts. Even if they press on with the season, it’s inevitable that individual games will have to be canceled because of outbreaks. There’s no reason to believe a season with any kind of competitive integrity is possible. It’s all part and parcel of the same wishful thinking happening around holding in-person classes in the midst of an unchecked pandemic.

An even more vexed question is what are we going to do about college sports long-term?

While we like to think of NCAA football and men’s basketball as big business -- because they are -- for the vast majority of schools, athletics are a drain on the budget bottom line, and they are often funded through student fees and institutional subsidies, which directly results in increased costs to students.[1]

Many schools in the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) get away without subsidies, but some of the lesser lights in those conferences have some of the very highest deficits. For example, Rutgers athletics required $193 million in subsidies between 2012 and 2019.

At best, athletics programs are self-sustaining, and at worst they may increase tuition 10 percent by drawing on institutional funds to make up for deficits. At the non-Power 5 conferences, this is usually driven by the high cost of football as they attempt to keep up with the major power Rockefellers.

Over a five-year period (2010-2014) The Chronicle of Higher Education studied, more than $10 billion in student fees and other institutional subsidies went into sports at public institutions. There is no reason to believe things have improved since.

For the vast majority of institutions, a canceled fall sports season will be a benefit to the bottom line.

Big-time college sports with coaches that make $10 million a year, a governing body (NCAA) that makes $1 billion a year, and athletes who do not get paid all under an ostensible not-for-profit structure has long been a staggering hypocrisy. Now, it’s also financially impossible if we intend to preserve public colleges and universities as places oriented around educating students.

While the specifics may be complex, the concept of what must be done is simple: the Power 5 conferences must become for-profit, professional entities in men’s football and basketball. Other conferences and nonrevenue sports in the Power 5 conferences will be scaled down to amateur athletics, with budgets reflective of that amateurism.

Sports where revenue growth is possible (football, basketball) will be untethered from the fantasy of serving student athletes. Other sports will make sure that the "student" in student athlete comes first.

Teams will have to pay fees to the institution to license the name and logo as well as to use the facilities that have been built with institutional funds like the stadium and football practice facilities. It will take some wrangling to find a formula, but that’s just accounting. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers will still exist, but the players will be paid as professionals are in any other professional developmental league. Rosters will be somewhat smaller than the current 85, but larger than the NFL’s 53. Let’s say 68.

Salary structure could be done any number of ways. Teams could have a cap, or the league itself could mandate levels as Major League Soccer does, with a handful of exceptions for exceptional players. There can be salary floors and ceilings. The NBA developmental league (G-League) pays players $125,000 a season.

Just as a way of illustrating how much -- or really how little -- money we’re talking about in the grand scheme of things, if you took half of Dabo Swinney’s annual salary ($9.3 million) and dedicated it to salaries for a 68-player roster, that’s an average salary of more than $130,000. Players who do not move on to pro ball will be entitled to four years of discounted tuition at the institution associated with their team. They can be students when they’re done being athletes.

Basketball will be somewhat more complicated, as there are teams outside the Power 5 conferences who are competitive for the championship, but given the fact that the March Madness tourney all by itself generates over $700 million and basketball rosters don’t need more than 12 to 15 players, I feel like we can figure it out.

Structured properly, this will be a boon to all institutions. The league can grow unchecked by concerns over the fact that this is supposed to be amateur athletics. By revenue, Power 5 football league would be significantly larger than the NHL. Kicking some of that money back to the schools at no risk to the schools themselves will be a good deal for all.

Other schools and other sports will look more like the current Division III, only a little bigger because the schools themselves are bigger. They will be required to operate within their budgets. Students will get partial or whole scholarships and primarily be students. There will likely be fewer sports and fewer teams. Club sports can fill in the extracurricular gap at significantly lower cost.

External fundraising will be necessary to keep sports going, but perhaps more people will be moved to donate to a cause that’s student-centered, part of the larger project of education, rather than a massive sports entertainment industry hiding under the fig leaf of amateurism.

The nitty-gritty logistics are complicated. The concept is not.

They key, as with all these things, is to start with the values and principles.

These are mine:

  • Nonprofit public higher education institutions should operate according to what is good for the mission of education, rather than concerns about football and revenue.
  • Players should be paid for their labor when that labor generates billions of dollars of revenue that benefits and profits others.
  • Student fees should go toward things that benefit students and their educations, not to prop up athletics departments that operate in the red.

Yes, it looks like radical change, but it’s really pretty simple, and arguably overdue.


Got your own take on college sports? Send them to me at [email protected].

[1] The Chronicle laid out how all this works in a massive 2015 story.


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