Giving Higher Education a Sporting Chance


For weeks, students have been braving the elements in tents just for the chance to see the infamous Duke-UNC rivalry play out once again in the historic Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday, February 9th. Should the Blue Devils emerge victorious at the end of the night, the time-honored, exciting tradition of bench-burning will be carried out all across West Campus. Win or lose, Duke’s basketball program can be an extremely gratifying element of campus life for students that all need a break from the difficulties that come with a rigorous course load.

The benefits of having a strong university sports program have long been touted by various researchers such as Paul Grimes, who found in a study published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology that alumni donations had a positive relationship with the performance of the collegiate sports program. Another study conducted by Franklin Mixon, Jr. for the Applied Economics Letters found that increased success in the collegiate sporting teams consistently led to increases in application numbers. Upon first glance, these findings suggest that college sports are innocuous and essential assets to the student body’s welfare.

However, dig a little deeper, and cracks start to appear in the facade. Sports teams make huge demands on student-athletes, often at the expense of the “student” half of the hyphenate. Coaches and managers are paid prodigious salaries, which oftentimes outweigh the actual net value the teams return to universities. If the issues raised by collegiate sports teams are this problematic, why are they continuously supported by universities? Is it truly only for the purpose of achieving a sort of communal bond amongst the students and alumni, or is there a more suspect justification?

A working paper by Duke University Professor Nicholas Carnes seeks to prove that it may be the latter that fuels the world of college sports and, more specifically, how conduct of those involved affects the political goodwill for state spending on higher education. In the modern age, the ability for one to acquire a job is deeply dependent on the literacy and critical thinking skills one acquires from their alma mater. In addition, the economic success of a concentrated area is highly dependent on its base population’s level of education.

As a result, sufficient state funding for higher education is of paramount importance. However, it appears that many legislators are alienated by the highly scholastic and pedagogical nature of the collegiate world, and instead have a much easier time connecting and empathizing with the sports programs that many state schools nurture.

In Carnes’ study, he analyzes the correlation between a highly-publicized sports scandal and the amount of funding to higher education as a whole by state legislators. At first, embarrassments such as the Iowa State coach punching a player on the opposing team at the 1978 Gator Bowl or more egregious scandals such as the falsification of over $200,000 in Pell Grant applications by the University of Miami coach through players seem like gaffes that, while shocking and unbecoming, bear no longstanding effect on the state of higher education as a whole. Yet, Carnes’ research seems to disprove this optimistic outlook. In a detailed analysis of state budget records dating back to the 1960’s, he found that in the budgeting cycles directly following some sort of collegiate sports scandal, there was an average reduction of spending on higher education by $71 million.

This finding highlights an uncomfortably close connection between the behavior of a select few members of a university and the entire existence of some educational departments at smaller state schools. Due to the recent push for schools to focus more resources on more pre-professional programs in the science, technology, and math disciplines, this decreased funding can have detrimental affects on smaller liberal arts departments.

When the prospective ability of students to make the most of their college education is jeopardized by any disgruntled coach venting their anger on the court, it could be concluded that politicians are not as engaged and invested in public education as they should be.

In an age of global competition for top jobs, it is important that state legislators recognize there is more at stake in the support of higher education than the welfare of a sports team, such as the welfare of an entire generation. Perhaps it is time that politicians look at the academic performance of state schools and the effect of this performance on overall statewide prosperity as a metric for how much money to spend on higher education, instead of being swayed by the performance of college sports teams.

While these findings may be drowned out in the fervent hype for the ACC tournament and the subsequent NCAA tournament, it is important to acknowledge the role that these concentrated sports programs have in the grand scheme of university funding. Due to the human propensity to make mistakes, it can be dangerous to jeopardize the wellbeing of an entire university system on the actions of a select few coaches and student athletes. It is vital that students and university personnel seek to convince legislators of the importance of consistent and proficient funding for higher education.

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