Should College Sports Be Banned?

American universities need to reassess their spending on athletics and redress the double standard

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Tami Chappell / Reuters

Students walk past the entrance to Spelman College in Atlanta on Feb. 12, 2009

Correction appended: April 29, 2013

Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta recently announced that it would eliminate its athletic department, disband all sports teams and withdraw from the NCAA. It plans to reallocate the roughly $900,000 in savings — from an overall operating budget of roughly $100 million — toward a wellness initiative that will emphasize fitness and focus on activities like golf, swimming, tennis, yoga and Pilates. Spelman’s president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, said she believed that it was more important to focus on the health of the entire campus than to use those funds to support Spelman’s 80 student athletes who qualified for NCAA funding.

I applaud the efforts of Spelman, my alma mater, to improve the health of America’s youth and especially black women, many of whom are more prone to diseases that are helped by exercise — such as diabetes and high blood pressure — than are other groups. But I worry that the decision might be used to strengthen calls to reduce — or fully cut — Title IX funding, the 1972 federal legislation mandating equal access for women in education, including sports. Despite overwhelming public support for the policy and volumes of data attesting to its positive impact for women, naysayers still abound.

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For example, a 2012 article in the Atlantic blamed Title IX for everything from ACL injuries to eating disorders and sexual abuse by coaches. And last June, a writer for U.S. News and World Report wrote a column titled “Title IX’s Dark Legacy” that argued that the policy was pitting men and women against each other and ultimately ruining men’s sports. But what’s particularly interesting about Spelman’s choice is that the relatively paltry amount it is saving highlights the fact that far more money is consistently spent on collegiate men’s sports than on women’s.

According to a report released earlier this year by Donna Desrochers, a principal researcher for the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research, between 2005 and 2010, spending by colleges and universities on athletics increased at least twice as fast as academic spending at public Division I colleges and universities, and those institutions typically spend three to six times as much on each athlete as they do to educate the average student. The same report found that, depending on the conference, and if the school was public or private, between 7% and a whopping 42% of athletic budgets are directly subsidized with fees charged to all students, regardless of whether they play sports or not.

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Her analysis was based on data collected both from the Education Department and USA Today’s college-spending database, which ranked athletic spending by Division 1 schools and found that men made up 69.5% of intercollegiate athletes and their programs used 70% of the scholarship funds, 77% of the operating budgets and 83% of the recruiting budgets. That lack of balance has consequences. Earlier this month, a staff attorney for an organization called Public Justice wrote about her ultimately successful efforts to have the women’s volleyball team reinstated after Fort Valley State University had informed them that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to fund them, despite the fact that the school had just spent $9 million to build a new football stadium.

Eliminating the athletic department was the right move for Spelman, and few are contesting the decision. But for a moment, let’s just imagine what the response might have been if Spelman had been coed, and both men’s and women’s teams had been affected. Let us hope that, in this era of shrinking budgets and rising tuitions, their forward-thinking move might encourage larger universities to question their disproportionate spending on athletics over academics, and not provide an excuse to widen the gap between men’s and women’s sport and perpetuate a double standard.

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Grand Valley State University had its volleyball team reinstated amid a Title IX dispute. In fact, it was Fort Valley State University.