Athletics demand resources in a fundamentally different way than other fields in higher education. If Pomona and CMC both have excellent cancer research facilities, and make important breakthroughs for cancer, everyone benefits and we can celebrate both labs. We can do the same for every other academic discipline and artistic endeavor; we celebrate excellence where we see it. However, if Pomona and CMC both have excellent basketball teams, we only care if they are good relative to other teams. In athletics the objective is to win, not just to become excellent, so there's a constant pressure for teams to improve relative to other teams. I believe that bad teams playing today could beat good teams from twenty years ago, because for twenty years teams have faced continual pressure to get better or risk oblivion.
The result is that university athletic programs are involved in a continual arms race, as Judge Richard Posner points out (Coincidentally, most professional sports teams lose money because of the constant pressure to spend more money on players). Athletic directors and coaches continually plead for better training facilities, more coaches and/or bigger budgets, citing a need to lure recruits and stay competitive. They succeed when they ask for money because athletics, unlike academic departments, provide immediate feedback about success; if a team isn't competitive, they will lose games. It's much more difficult to receive feedback from investment in academic disciplines than athletics, so a donation to the sports program provides a quick, visible result unlike endowing a professor's chair or paying for a scholarship. As a result, schools are build bigger and better athletic facilities and hire more staff. Salaries for top basketball and football coaches are often higher than salaries for university deans. Most schools boast shiny new weight rooms and/or practice facilities. Our own school has plans to renovate the gym and build a new weight training room.
There's no need for the arms race. All of the external benefits of sports (high attendance, championships, success, school pride) are correlated with winning. Spending money only helps achieve wins if one school can spend more money on its sports programs than the others. As long as one school can spend more money on its sports programs than the others, there will be a constant upward pressure on athletic budgets. We can help stop the arms race by regulating athletic departments, either through the NCAA or through conference organizations. The NCAA already regulates some aspects of athletics, placing limits on recruiting visits and phone calls, ensuring that a team's average SAT is within one standard deviation of the school's average SAT, and limiting the number of athletic scholarships by sport and school division. Granted, many people believe some NCAA rules are dumb, and some of their rules make little sense. However I encourage the NCAA and/or school conferences to take a more active role to stop the arms race among athletic departments. Schools should accept limits on the amount of money schools can spend on their athletic departments. Schools should offer scholarships to athletes based on financial need, and in line with a school's scholarship offers to regular students of the same need, as Ivy League schools do. I believe that attendance, school pride and success won't suffer if we place these restrictions on schools, because teams will still win games and championships, just with lower budgets than they did before.
An example which illustrates my point is the new Speedo LZR Racer Suit, which allows swimmers to shave their times by 1 to 2 percent. The suits cost $600 each and last for four races; a school that had enough money to pay for the suits would have a significant advantage over other schools, unless everyone bought the suits, then the advantage would disappear. In this situation, if the league or NCAA mandated that swimmers could not wear the suits, or could only wear them for the league championships, schools would save tons of money, the swimmers' relative rankings would remain constant, and the overall product would not suffer. In the absence of any regulation, schools will have to spend money on the LZR suits or their swimmers will not be able to win.
I wish that sports were a less important component of higher education. The results can provide the athletes and coaches with important life lessons, and games give students and alumni a fun night out; these benefits should not be overlooked, but the results are ultimately meaningless, unlike a cure for cancer or discovering how our minds work. Unfortunately, it's hard to measure success in academic fields and even harder to predict which students will be academic stars, whereas in athletics, success is measured with every game and one can predict with reasonable certainty the success of high schoolers at the college level.
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