THE BLOG
04/11/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

Challenging the Value of College Athletics

Of the 15 players on the University of Connecticut men's basketball team that won NCAA Championship earlier this week, only one is likely to graduate. And John Calipari, coach of the University of Kentucky, which lost the game, made $5.51 million this year, more than the presidents of New York University, Columbia and Yale combined.

If you ask a man on the street what comes to mind when you mention "Stanford University," chances are good that instead of answering "academics," he'll say "football." While that may seem fair on balance, Stanford has a lower acceptance rate to its college than Harvard, Yale or Princeton, and its campus is home to 22 Nobel laureates. He probably won't recognize the names of faculty members Michael Levitt, Thomas Sudhof, Alvin Roth, Brian Kobilka or Thomas J. Sargent -- each of whom have earned the Nobel Prize since 2010 -- yet he'll be able to rattle off the combined Super Bowl rings worn by Stanford football stars Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Andrew Luck without batting an eyelash.

Intercollegiate athletics has assumed a bloated role in the American higher education system. Evidence of that oversized role includes the focus of colleges and universities, the amount of money invested in athletic programs, salaries of athletic department employees and dismal graduation rates at many sports-heavy schools.

Surely, there are positive aspects to intercollegiate athletics: Sports breeds friendships, physical fitness, teamwork and a unique sense of school loyalty. It's also an invaluable tool for engaging alumni and other donors to help fund universities, and for student recruitment.

However, the negative effects outweigh those advantages. Colleges and universities are responsible for developing hundreds of thousands of students, very few of whom will become professional athletes. When the athletic programs consume an oversized portion of public relations, alumni interest, financial resources and time, the underlying academic mission of higher education suffers.

Faculty feel marginalized when the focus of the university is the basketball or football team rather than scholarship. Recently, football players at Northwestern University, (where I am an adjunct professor), won a case before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) allowing them to consider forming a union. While in school, students should be scholars, not employees.

Still, the NLRB representative had a point. Football players testified that they spent more time hitting each other at practice than they did hitting the books, something that neither Northwestern nor most other colleges with big-time athletic programs would discourage. After all, it's the work they put in on the field, as opposed to the classroom, that earns money for the university. One can't blame the players for thinking they are part of big business, not a place of higher learning.

I'm not implying that intercollegiate athletics should be abolished, but limits on scholarships, spending on athletic programs, physical education staff salary and ancillary income could restore the appropriate balance. Athletics might go back to being an essential complement to a college campus, rather than overshadowing it.

American students continue to fall behind their peers in other countries in academic achievement. Fostering an environment where academic and professional success is venerated and valued would create a model for our students to actually realize their potential. The Chinese engineers our students will be competing with will surely be programming, not worshipping, an 18-year-old, seven-foot center.