COMMENTARY: U. investment into athletics sidelines academics
This year, Rutgers University celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding. One of the most interesting episodes in its long and sometimes distinguished history has been the controversy surrounding big-time sports. Until recently, most alumni would have agreed with Milton Friedman, Class of 1932, that sports were “an important but strictly minor aspect of Rutgers education.” But beginning with the presidency of Edward Bloustein (1971-1989), influential members of the Board of Governors decided to transform and enlarge the athletics program. No longer would Rutgers compete with its traditional rivals in the Patriot and Ivy leagues. It would become a major sports school, like the large public universities of the Midwest. This goal was achieved in 2014 when Rutgers became a member of the Big Ten. Not everyone regarded this as a success story. For 20 years and more, a vocal and articulate group of students, alumni and faculty had argued that Rutgers should retain its tradition of participatory athletics. They lost the argument, but their questions and concerns remain important for the future of the school. I believe that in time the better argument will prevail and that Rutgers will be forced to abandon big-time sports.
The principal reason is money. Former President Richard McCormick liked to produce back-of–the-envelope calculations showing that the athletics deficit was a minuscule part of the total budget. What he did not say was that “in any large organization’s budget, the entire amount of money that is not committed years in advance is no more than 1 or 2 percent — or, to put it more specifically, that athletics has swallowed the money that could otherwise have been used to improve (Rutgers’) core activities.”
Contrary to McCormick’s calculations, the dollar drain from sports has been quite large. The cumulative athletic deficits for the past 25 years may be as high as $400 million. To put this number in perspective, this was the amount of “deferred maintenance” of the campus during the same period. It is nearly half the amount that was raised by the "Our Rutgers, Our Future" fund drive. By 2014, the athletic deficit had grown to $36 million — the largest of any school in America. Additional deficits of $183 million are forecast. They will be much larger if Rutgers is compelled to increase spending on athletics in order to remain competitive in the Big Ten. By 2023, more than a half-billion dollars will have been spent “to provide entertainment for spectators or employment for athletes” rather than “to transmit understanding and ideals and values to students,” in the words of Milton Friedman.
The gaudy bubble of college sports is part of a much larger bubble in higher education. Costs have soared and college is unaffordable for many families unless they incur crippling debts. College used to cost about the same as a car — it now costs the equivalent of a house. Rutgers should be doing everything possible to provide a good — no, an excellent — education at a moderate price. Being a farm team of the NFL will only detract from this goal. No matter how many new sports facilities are built, no matter how much money is paid to the football coach, there will be the cry for more. And when the crowd finally turns its attention elsewhere, or when brain injury to football players becomes an intolerable national scandal, Rutgers and the other sports schools will be left with a huge mal-investment.
The people who run Rutgers should take the long view. Rather than follow the fashion for sports, they should improve the school’s academic standing. Certainly there is need for improvement. As Forbes magazine noted, Rutgers is the only one of the eight colonial colleges that is not among the country’s top 50 schools. If standards are raised, many students who now go out of state for their education will choose to attend Rutgers and the school will attract out of state students who are willing to pay more for a superior education. That, in the end, is the only justification for Rutgers’ existence. Sports are, at best, a side-show, and at worst, a corrupt racket. The policy of doubling-down on them is a sure loser.
Walter Boldys is a Class or 1974 Rutgers College alumnus.
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