The University of Wisconsin at Madison is a storied land-grant institution that prides itself on educating the entire state. Its founding charter, renewed in the Wisconsin Idea of 1905, articulates a commitment to higher education that has a positive impact on the cultural, political, and commercial dimensions of the state as a whole. Widely recognized as one of America’s premier state universities, Wisconsin has always been known for academic rigour and progressive politics. The school is steeped in a tradition of early twentieth-century progressivism that sought to combat egregious economic imbalance, monopolistic practices, and coercive treatment of the state’s labour force.
But in the past couple of decades, the University of Wisconsin has joined that other collegiate elite: athletics. The ascent began when Wisconsin’s football team—up to that point, a perennial Big Ten doormat—won the Rose Bowl in 1994. Since then, the Badgers have become a nationally respected program, and their freshly remodelled home is filled with over eighty thousand spectators on a regular basis. Shortly after football began their upward trend, men’s basketball did the same. In the last two decades they’ve been an NCAA tournament staple, with multiple trips to the sweet sixteen, elite eight, and final four.
In this sense, Wisconsin has only caught up with wider trends in US higher education. Unlike their international counterparts, American colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes have placed unique emphasis on the value of sports. In Clark Kerr’s famous 1963 Godkin Lectures, which became The Uses of the University, the UC-Berkeley president illustrated how higher education in America was a hybrid of medieval Parisian, renaissance British, and modern German institutions. But its differences were so variant, and as an entity it was so many things to so many people, he coined the phrase multiversity to begin to describe America’s unusual place in the history of education.
According to Kerr, medieval, Renaissance, and modern universities were all governed, in their own way, by a dominant animating principle. Conversely, the emerging American version was constituted by several, making for a chaotic constellation of competing planetary systems. But where Kerr’s survey of the multiversity substantively accounted for the fractionalized interplay of academic presidents, administrators, faculty, and students, he only spoke sparingly (and in many ways, dismissively) of sports.
As non-profit educational institutions, one could safely assume that there should be a non-profit educational purpose for athletics. If the university is for teaching and learning, sport should serve a pedagogical function. This sort of role for athletics in education has an ancient pedigree. Even tangential familiarity with Plato’s dialogues could help university leaders situate the deeply formative virtues of athletic activity in an academic environment. As Socrates says to his interlocutors in the Theaetetus, “Doesn’t the condition of bodies get destroyed by quiet and idleness, but get preserved for the most part by exercises and motion?” So it is with the soul’s acquiring knowledge and wisdom through intellectual training: “By quiet, which is a lack of practice and folly, it does not learn anything at all and forgets whatever it does learn.” And it may be instructive that the dialogue refers back to a brilliant young Athenian student who was also sound of body, and died in defense of the city. Athletics has been woven into paideia since antiquity.
If the university is for teaching and learning, sport should serve a pedagogical function. This sort of role for athletics in education has an ancient pedigree.
But this is hardly the place of sport in higher education today. Instead, influential leaders like Kerr see athletics in the multiversity as “a form of public entertainment…even in the Ivy League.” Once established as such, “university spectator sports could not be killed even by the worst teams or the best of de-emphasis; and few universities seriously sought after either.”
Since the time of Kerr’s writing, the entertainment scope has expanded, along with the demands and perceived (though highly debatable) quality of athletic performance. The visible result of this expansion has been an enormous amount of attention and resource dedicated to intercollegiate athletics. The less visible problem is that university presidents (with few exceptions) give lip service to the comradery, character development, and communal benefits of sport, but they still haven’t established a substantive educational purpose for the athletic departments on their campuses. That doesn’t mean those athletic departments don’t still function as educational incubators. They still play a critical role in shaping campus life for individuals and communities. But what is being taught and learned?
College athletics do achieve one of the things Kerr said a multiversity should do: expanding recognition of the name of the institution, which “stands for a certain standard of performance, a certain degree of respect, a certain historical legacy, a characteristic quality of spirit.” As such, “protection and enhancement of the prestige of the name are central to the multiversity.”
Today, “the name” has been replaced by “the brand,” and the costly wager many colleges and universities have made is that winning football and men’s basketball programs are net positives in the realm of brand enhancement. If those programs manage to stay out of trouble that’s even better. But it is hardly a necessity, as evinced through countless scandals where (unless the FBI gets involved) coaches and athletic administrators go without censure. Nor is it viewed as a necessity when scandalous athletic programs don’t negatively affect student recruitment and matriculation at Penn State, Duke, Baylor, Louisville, or UNC.
Today, “the name” has been replaced by “the brand,” and the costly wager many colleges and universities have made is that winning football and men’s basketball programs are net positives in the realm of brand enhancement.
As Kerr noted half a century ago, athletic programs have had remarkable staying power, even when their conduct has disgraced the name of the institution. And while many have become familiar with athletic impropriety at the names listed above, smaller schools (including my Division III alma mater, Wheaton College, IL) have also accommodated the advance of football at the expense of institutional integrity. The moral vacuum created by such accommodations is evident in the innumerable absurdities that are embodied in coach pay that dwarfs the salary of university presidents, exorbitant TV and apparel contracts, around-the-clock media coverage of athletes who have about a 1 percent chance of making the pros, educational compromises that undermine both institutional and individual credibility, and unspoken licensing of substance and sexual abuses that only seem to receive attention (and the possibility of reprimand) after the damage is done. None of which should come as a surprise, if athletics are only viewed as an entertainment mechanism, rendering coaches and athletes little more than product managers and entertainment commodities.
Under such conditions it’s no wonder that corruption of college sports, and the large sums of money associated with it, has been more readily accepted than comparable abuses in academic venues. If the purpose of sport is to entertain, why not capitalize on the enterprise in partnership with large corporations? And if the enterprise naturally invites an occasional moral compromise (that doesn’t ultimately hurt the brand), what’s to be lost?
But as Christian Smith recently argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education, what’s to be lost is the very foundation of a civil life together.
Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences. What is formed in colleges and universities over decades shows up for better or worse in the character and quality of our public servants, political campaigns, public-policy debates, citizen participation, social capital, media programming, lower school education, consumer preferences, business ethics, entertainments, and much more.
From an educational standpoint, what’s perhaps gone unnoticed is that the moral and institutional compromises that have been formed in college athletic programs are now starting to show up in the academic ranks. And where corporations like ESPN have long since solidified their influence over intercollegiate athletics, wealthy donors are now seeking eager faculty and administrators who will trade a corner of the university for large contributions.
In his recent Baffler essay, “Academe on the Auction Block,” David V. Johnson sounded the alarm about the rise of the edupreneurs: a class of credentialed elites who (much like college football and basketball coaches) use their university posts to attract corporate financial backing. On one level, this trend has been a painful necessity, ever since Ronald Reagan’s infamous initiative to defund California’s state universities was launched in 1967. (Coincidentally, it was Clark Kerr’s last year as UC-Berkeley president.) In turn, other states aggressively followed suit, cutting budgets while raising tuition and the overall cost of attendance. That movement has only accelerated, and as Johnson notes, “Where once public education was seen as an investment in states’ brightest and most promising students, now such schools market themselves as ‘public ivies.'” One of their only avenues to achieve solvency is the matriculation of out-of-state students who are aggressively recruited—even at schools like Wisconsin that have prioritized the good of in-state students—because they can help balance budget deficits. The other, and for Johnson the more dangerous, avenue is where the edupreneur excels: accessing “private funding that burrows within the very body of public [and private] institutions,” garnering “influence to related departments and curricula across the university.”
The wide range of motivations, political interests, and institutional footholds that have been secured (at California, Arizona, Harvard, Washington University, Alabama, Wake Forest, MIT, and so on) is as staggering as are the policy initiatives that have successfully made their way through legislative bodies, once they secure an edupreneurial stamp of approval. To understand how troubling this development really is, one need look no further than the documentary Inside Job, or Aaron Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, both of which chronicle how deregulation of the global housing markets at the turn of the century (and eventual crisis in 2008) was mostly envisioned and lobbied for by economists at Ivy League schools—many of whom happened to be paid consultants for companies that would eventually receive bailouts from the United States federal government. Far from the educational bedrock of a free society, Johnson observes a triangulated corruption of intellectual life, leading toward a renaissance patronage model where any notion of a public good is predetermined by the ultra-wealthy who dish their pocket change to influence the direction of higher education and the results of political campaigns.
Interestingly enough, one of the major funders Johnson points to is Nike founder, Phil Knight. A graduate of Oregon and Stanford, where he received his undergraduate and business degrees respectively, Knight is unique in the landscape of university influence. Unlike Charles and David Koch, Ken and Randy Kendrick, and Glenn Hutchins, Knight’s gateway to influence was not built on robber-baron reserves or a zealous political ideology. It began with a small company that spent two decades on the verge of bankruptcy, and made it big with two entrepreneurial strokes of genius. First, the American sneaker market had insufficiently served the design and performative interest of athletes and enthusiasts. Second, college sport was an untapped and virtually unregulated arena that Nike could utilize to secure brand recognition and eventual consumer loyalty.
Where athletic apparel used to be a budgetary expense for college programs across the country, Nike took an unprecedented risk in the late seventies and early eighties by offering equipment to marquee schools for free. In the same way that university presidents have risked institutional credibility by making their football and men’s basketball teams their brand’s standard-bearers, Nike risked major short-term losses to utilize universities and college athletes as live billboards for their brand. The gamble worked, to the extent that Nike (along with Adidas, and Under Armour to a lesser degree) now has the power to underwrite large portions of the college sports industry, including supplementing already exorbitant coach salaries to secure brand placement at elite institutions.
In effect, Nike happily accepted Clark Kerr’s evaluation of college athletics as an entertainment commodity, setting up a mutually beneficial partnership within a black hole of university life. Left to their own devices, with no substantive educational purpose, athletic administrators have empowered coaches to serve as promotional icons of their schools (and private corporations), discovering new and innovative ways to bend the girders of institutional credibility for the sake of enhancing name recognition.
For decades now, this Faustian gamble has been quietly accepted because it was (supposedly) isolated to athletics. What developments on the other side of campus now suggest is that academic edupreneurs have taken notes from the coaches and are discovering black holes of their own. And though there’s growing concern about university donors corrosively invading higher education, Phil Knight was well ahead of the game, having already managed to invade both athletics and academics. Oregon and Stanford have received hundreds of millions of dollars for academics and athletics from the sneaker visionary, and both university’s athletes are draped in Nike apparel.
The Cost of Attendance
In recent years, the unchallenged impact of private corporate interests in elite athletic programs has become so obvious that the legitimacy of their non-profit status, and the possibility of extending larger financial benefits to college athletes, has become an open question. At the peak of the 2017 college football bowl season, Mike McIntire argued, in The New York Times, that not only is the non-profit status of top-level programs hard to justify, it’s “the rocket-fuel for an engine that has escaped the gravitational pull of common sense and decency.” The indecency is only compounded when you discover that only a select few college athletic programs are financially profitable. But as brand standard-bearers without an educational mandate, profitability ends up being one of the only things (both implicitly and explicitly) that these programs are striving for.
As McIntire points out, “Decades of aggressive lobbying and legal battles” have allowed universities “to avoid income taxes on billions of dollars from broadcast rights, sponsorships and donations from boosters.” The bedrock of these lobbying initiatives insists that “athletic activities of schools are substantially related to their educational function.” In effect, this is a true statement. But with universities selling themselves off to the highest bidders, the educational message being received by students (athletes or not) has little to do with cultivating intellectual or moral virtues. Rather, in a world of hyper-consumerism, what’s required is a knowledge base and moral barometer that’s ready made to game the system.
But as brand standard-bearers without an educational mandate, profitability ends up being one of the only things (both implicitly and explicitly) that these programs are striving for.
To illustrate the point, in the fall of 2016, one of Wisconsin’s standout basketball players, Nigel Hayes, was prominently featured on ESPN’s football pregame show College Gameday holding a sign that read, “BROKE COLLEGE ATHLETE ANYTHING HELPS.” Hayes was widely praised for supposedly speaking truth to power, alerting the public to the non-profit hypocrisy of elite college sport. While that hypocrisy inarguably exists, a great deal was lost in the swirl of attention that Hayes received. Namely, that he, his teammates, and eighty-five football players receive tangible financial benefits that any paying student on campus (or adjunct professor) would hardly scoff at. Adding up full tuition remission, food and housing funds that can exceed the cost of actual expenses, and now additional cash stipends to alleviate “cost-of-attendance”—an initiative the NCAA spearheaded to avoid increasing negative public relations—an out-of-state athlete at Wisconsin, like Hayes, is the annual benefactor of about $50,000.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, in reality that number is much higher when you add up additional benefits received through athletic activities (world-class health coverage, clothing, additional food, travel, sanctioned gifts, etc.), and more impressive when you consider the tax-exempt status college athletes maintain. It’s also worth noting how strange it would be for a supposedly broke college basketball player not to enter the NBA draft, where the minimum annual salary for a first-year player is north of $800,000. But Hayes stayed at Wisconsin for four years, likely because he and his advisors knew that he wasn’t good enough to guarantee a professional salary in the NBA. After his senior year, Hayes went undrafted, and now plays for the Westchester Knicks in the NBA G-League, where the maximum (taxed) salary is $26,000. Playing basketball at Wisconsin was, in fact, a better deal.
Instead, what if colleges and universities recommitted themselves to giving all of their students an education?
None of which discredits the need to address a growing problem within higher education. Nor should it entirely undermine Hayes, who by all reports was a model student and member of the campus community during his time at Wisconsin. It simply illustrates how pressure to increase financial benefits for elite college athletes will continue, and in a market-driven educational landscape there’s no telling where that increase would end. There’s also no guarantee that college athletics would have any way to (even nominally) serve a greater good. Instead, if entertainment, brand recognition, and increased revenue are the only incentives for athletic programs to exist, and athletes to perform, then whatever money fortifies the enterprise will simply funnel to the places that ensure a reasonable rate of return. Not only would the basis for awarding roster spots (especially on football teams that often exceed 120) likely be recalibrated and cut, non-revenue sports like soccer, cross-country, and swimming will be easily expendable. On a purely financial basis, the existence of women’s sports, even under the protection of Title IX, could eventually be undermined too, because successful coaches and high school recruits (with little chance of competing professionally) in marquee men’s sports would likely strike harder and harder bargains to secure their commitment to a school. In a landscape where the educational values of academic institutions have been so profoundly compromised—visible in both athletic and academic departments on campus—empowering elite football and men’s basketball players with more dispensable income seems to be the only imaginable solution to a growing problem. But as Rousseau once said, “Give only money and soon you will have chains.” Instead, what if colleges and universities recommitted themselves to giving all of their students an education?