Several weeks ago Missy Franklin discussed her experience as a freshman swimmer at Berkley. Nothing earth shattering, right? Not quite. Franklin isn’t just any old freshman swimmer, she’s the current world record holder in the 200m backstroke, a 4-time Olympic gold medalist and the current Women’s Sports Foundation’s Sportswoman of the Year. Franklin’s talents have brought her world class domination and made her eligible to begin to profit from her talents with endorsements, scholarships and prize money. At the age of 17 Franklin could have started her professional career and began developing a very profitable brand, but she didn’t. Instead, Franklin set the riches on the backburner and opted for life as an NCAA athlete, a life that provides a free education but strictly forbids profiting off of her talents. She said no to the money.
Not everyone says no to the money. Last month Mary Cain decided on a different path. After a stellar year of breaking decades old records and becoming the youngest person ever to compete in the 1500m in the World Championship finals (at the age of 17), Cain has opted for the pro circuit. She assessed her talents, goals and the market and decided that foregoing the NCAA was the right choice for her. At the age of 16, golf phenom, Lydia Ko, also turned pro last month. Ranked number four in the world, Ko’s eyes are on the big bucks, the education will come. They said yes to the money.
In an age when it is commonplace for male athletes to spend very little or no time in college before turning pro, these ladies have shown that women may also be primed to more frequently make the decision to opt out of college and declare themselves professional athletes. Undoubtedly, any young woman who is talented enough to be faced with this decision must ask herself, is it worth it? Is it worth it to give up a free education to pursue an uncertain professional career? Or is it worth it to spend four years in school while potentially missing out on large sums of money? On a larger scale, schools have also begun to ask themselves is it worth it. Are sports programs, specifically women’s programs, worth the expense? Is it worth it for schools to spend millions to support student athletes who will likely never play their sport as a professional?
In this portion of a two-part examination of the utility of female sports programs in colleges, I discuss the issue as it relates to schools. The perspectives of the student-athletes and the institutions that house them are frequently very different, but each is vital to discussing the topic. The schools, as the providers of the opportunity, often view the utility of programs based on budgetary and statutory concerns1; while the student-athletes take a more personal view of the issue. In the end; however, if one group collectively decides that college female sports programs are no longer effective or useful, the entire system will collapse.
Last year, a small but top-notch all-female historically black college, Spelman College, did something to shake things up on their campus and in the entire academic community; they cancelled their sports programs. Not just the smaller sports, but the big sports like basketball too. Spelman’s sports program was costing about $1 million per year and serving only 4 percent of the student body. In the meantime, the rate of obesity and heart disease among Spelman’s current and former student body was alarming. With those facts, President Beverly Daniel Tatum rationalized that for the women of Spelman College, college sports was not an endeavor worth taking on. So the student-athletes’ college careers were cut short and the $1 million would be used for health and wellness programs that would benefit the entire student body. For Spelman, women’s sports were not worth it. It was more important to use those monies to support the greater student body than to support a few student athletes whose athletic careers would probably go no further than Spelman.
Spelman’s radical decision reveals that for many institutions, funding athletic programs cost large amounts of money with little or no economic return. But is economic return the only factor schools should and do consider when developing and maintaining athletic programs? A review of Division I athletic departments revealed that 90 % of Division I schools operate athletic programs with the support of subsidies from outside programs, meaning the revenue from sports does not match the amount spent on sports programs. Since these schools continue to fund athletic programs, economic return can’t be the only factor schools consider when maintaining athletic programs. So what factors, other than money, could make it worth it for schools to fund sports programs?
One factor that schools should consider in determining whether to maintain athletic programs is institutional pride. Athletic programs and sports foster a sense of community, belonging and pride for students, faculty and alumni. Homecomings and reunions are often developed around sporting events. Mascots and sports teams give institutions public faces and provide institutional members with an identity and a symbol that they can point to with pride. These senses of pride and community encourage alumni to actively participate in the development of their alma maters and to give back, financially and otherwise, to their institutions. In fact, Spelman Vice President for Development, Kassandra Jolley, revealed that one of the initial reactions that she received after announcing that Spelman would no longer host NCAA sports was, “Good luck with your alums.” Institutions should consider the value in developing and maintaining a sense of school pride through sports teams. That value is displayed as healthy morale in among institutional members and as dollar signs from those who wish to support the institution.
In addition to fostering institutional pride and encouraging philanthropy, studies have shown that sports affect future applicants and students. Empirical data shows that the performances of athletic teams (specifically football and basketball) directly affect the number of applicants, with great performances from the teams leading to increases in applications. If sports programs have the potential to directly affect the number of students that apply, then they indirectly have the potential to diversify the applicant pool. An increase in applicants means that more applicants will likely come from varying backgrounds and have varying skill sets. This increase in diversity and demand allows schools to truly pick from the best and brightest to fill their classrooms each academic year.
If sports have the potential to increase and diversify the applicant pool, it follows that sports programs have the potential to diversify the entire student body; on two fronts. Obviously, if institutions are concerned with supporting a diverse student body, a fuller, more diverse applicant pool would increase the likelihood that institutions will accept students who will create heterogeneous learning environments that encourage the sharing of different ideas and cultures. Classrooms, campus organizations and initiatives are enriched through the participation of students with different perspectives, ideas and talents.
Sports programs have an even more direct way of diversifying the college experience: the existence of athletic teams means that there will be student-athletes in the classrooms, duh. Most colleges understand the value in having diverse classroom settings filled with students with athletic, political, academic and scientific talents and aspirations. Diverse classrooms improve the quality of education. Many student-athletes bring lessons of teamwork, leadership and creativity to the classroom; lessons they have learned through their participation in sports. The tools that student-athletes bring to the classroom setting enrich the learning experience for all.
I also believe that schools should consider scholarship programs when maintaining athletic programs. Most academic institutions desire to reward students for their accomplishments and to provide opportunities for less than fortunate students to attend college. Athletic scholarships allow schools to do just that. But for athletic scholarships, many individuals could not afford a college education. Athletic scholarships provide athletes with the opportunity to advance their knowledge and earning potential. Athletic scholarships also allow schools to acknowledge that athletic accomplishments can and should be rewarded on the same or similar level as academic accomplishments. Oftentimes, the student-athletes who receive scholarships have proven their ability to excel at both, increasing the incentive for institutions to reward their hard work and talents.
While an uninformed glance at the system of athletic scholarships may suggest that student-athletes are given a “free ride,” the readers of this article know differently. Offering athletic scholarships sets up a quid pro quo. Athletes are provided an education a little to no financial cost to them and their families. In exchange, schools are able to diversify their applicant pools and student bodies, ensuring that the crème de la crème attend their schools; and they are able to foster senses of community and pride, which encourages active and fruitful participation among current and former students. Everybody wins.
While the cost of funding athletic programs may not outweigh the revenue that sports programs generate, this is one case where it’s not (or shouldn’t be) all about the money. Sports bring more than money to college campuses. They bring school spirit and pride, encourage increased attendance and participation, contribute to diverse student bodies, and provide educations for hundreds of thousands of student-athletes. Money is important, but thankfully most colleges agree that, at least where sports are concerned, it isn’t everything. Even for Spelman, it wasn’t all about the money. Spelman considered the financial cost of its athletic program, but it also considered the cost to its overall student body. For Spelman, sustaining a sports program meant that it would be failing its larger student body because it would be unable to promote and support healthy lifestyles among those women. Spelman was willing to sacrifice the school spirit, the diversity, and the scholarships for the sake of the health of its women. I don’t blame them, but I do pray that the number of institutions who follow suit, especially those who look at the dollar signs first, is at a minimum because, after all, it is worth it.
1. Many schools determine their ability to support female sports teams based on their budgets and Title IX. While the vast majority of schools cannot afford to house an extensive amount of female teams; if they have male teams, Title IX requires that they spend proportionately on female sports programs.