At the July meeting of the board of regents, Eastern Athletic Director Steve Lochmueller shared the following vision for athletics: “Continue to focus on student athlete’s success in the classroom, support efforts to broaden student athletes foundation for their future outside of athletics, continue to raise the bar and pursue Championships in non-revenue sports, focus on building and elevating successful revenue sports to win Championships and finally seek opportunities to move into FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision, the NCAA’s upper tier] for the benefit of our athletics programs, but more importantly, to bring visibility, growth and opportunities to Eastern Kentucky University.” I love athletics and I fully support the goals of visibility, growth, and opportunities for EKU, but I believe that athletics may not be the best way to pursue those goals.
Very few universities make a profit from athletics. Most of the successful and famous schools spend millions on their athletics programs. If you look at data published in USA Today you will see that even UK subsidizes its athletic program. Western Kentucky, a model for some proponents of Eastern’s move to the big time, subsidizes athletics to the tune of $16 million. In short, moving to the FBS is no guarantee of prosperity. In fact, the reverse is more likely. It is probable that moving to the FBS would be a significant financial drain for Eastern.
In The Dynamic Advertising Effect of Collegiate Athletics, Doug Chung of Harvard Business School concludes the following: “Overall, athletic success has a significant long-term goodwill effect on future applications and quality. However, students with lower than average SAT scores tend to have a stronger preference for athletic success, while students with higher SAT scores have a greater preference for academic quality. Furthermore, the decay rate of athletics goodwill is significant only for students with lower SAT scores, suggesting that the goodwill created by intercollegiate athletics resides more extensively with low-ability students than with their high-ability counterparts.”
In other words, if by some miracle Eastern not only moves up to the FBS but also becomes successful there, we will be attracting more students with lower test scores than higher test scores. Chung also points out that “To achieve similar effects, a school would have to either decrease its tuition by 3.8 percent or increase the quality of its education by recruiting higher-quality faculty who are paid 5.1 percent more in the academic labor market.” This is another key issue. Big-time athletics is only one of many possible ways of pursuing “visibility, growth and opportunities.”
My other major concern is that big-time athletics can have a negative impact on academics in three major ways.
First, athletes themselves can easily become convinced that athletics are more important than academics. Second, it’s simply a matter of emphasis. Why are we spending so much money on this non-academic activity? What message are we sending about priorities? What is the academic role of big-time athletics? If the only answer is “visibility, growth and opportunities,” that is simply not an adequate response. As I mentioned above, there are many ways to pursue “visibility, growth and opportunities” that are more academic and less costly. Third, there is real evidence that big-time evidence has a negative impact on student academic performance. The article “Are Big-Time Sports a Threat to Student Achievement?” by three University of Oregon professors states the following: “We consider the relationship between collegiate football success and non-athlete student performance. We find that the team’s success significantly reduces male grades relative to female grades, and only in fall quarters, which coincides with the football season. Using survey data, we find that males are more likely than females to increase alcohol consumption, decrease studying, and increase partying in response to the success of the team.”
Yes, let’s pursue innovative ways of bringing visibility, growth and opportunities to Eastern, but let’s do it in a way that puts academics first and that does not endanger the financial health of this university.
Professor of History
Eastern Kentucky University