There are multiple questions that swirl insistently around higher education in America: questions of access, affordability, priorities, focus, quality, completion, transparency, and more. This is to be expected as the costs of higher education escalate and both governments and families seek solutions to the issues and proof that the return on the investment in higher education will justify its cost. In this climate another question emerges with growing intensity: how can we justify the presence of intercollegiate athletics, and its associated costs?
It is a reasonable and fair question. There are very few colleges and universities where intercollegiate athletics pays its own way. The difference between revenues and costs must therefore come from tuition or state support, or both. So the question posed above really is one of what benefits does athletics provide that justify the investment of tax revenues or tuition? A common answer posits that athletics is the “front porch” of the university, that it invites and encourages the engagement and support of alumni, the community, and the private sector. Many believe that athletics promotes and strengthens the brand of the institution. It is frequently asserted that individuals or entities that support athletics at a college or university will support academic and student programs as well. All of these ideas may well be accurate. And they may provide a sufficient justification for athletics to some, but certainly not to all.
There can be little doubt that athletics is deeply, and probably irreversibly, integrated into American higher education. Some might wish this was not the case, but we have to deal with the world as we find it, and not as we wish it to be. Given this reality, are there attributes of athletics that make it a valuable part of colleges and universities? At the University of Rhode Island I think the answer is yes.
Excluding facilities for the moment, scholarships are the largest single component of athletics budgets at URI and similar institutions: not coaches’ salaries, not travel, equipment, or operations. This is important because, in essence, scholarships are direct investments in the student-athletes. Therefore, when we examine the value of athletics to a campus, we need to assess the value of these young men and women to our endeavors and our community. At the University of Rhode Island, our student-athletes are overwhelmingly a positive force on campus. They tend to perform at a high level academically, have substantially higher graduation rates than the rest of the student body, are engaged, and are leaders. About 35% of them are on the Deans’ List. They set a terrific example for other students with regard to dedication, time management, engagement, and commitment. Most of these outstanding individuals would not be here if they were not able to compete while pursuing their education, and URI would be diminished by their absence.
Our student athletes bring important diversity to our campus. Diversity is an asset, an advantage, for our student body and for our community as whole. America is an increasingly diverse country, and obviously part of a diverse global society. Facilitating understanding of the nature, history, sociology, values, and perspectives of diverse cultures, ethnicities, world-views, and orientations is educationally valuable and, I would argue, critical to our students’ success in a global economy and global society.
One notable attribute of global society is its fascination and devotion to athletics and sports. The Olympics, the World Cup, March Madness, the proliferation of professional sports across the world, all are clear indicators of the human fascination (some would say “obsession”) with athletic competition. Yes this fascination can be divisive, even violent. But it can also play a central role in building the fabric of community, in bringing people together, and bridging difference. Hollywood has captured and portrayed this aspect of sports in compelling ways (e.g in the movies Mandela and the upcoming 42) and in quirky, amusing ways (e.g Silver Linings Playbook).
Intercollegiate athletics can assist campus communities in bridging differences, in finding common ground, in building relationships. In short – athletics can, and frequently does, foster community. It connects the campus community at any given moment to a wider community of alumni, constituents, and supporters of the university. Our athletes participate in all aspects of campus life, often in leadership roles. They are great representatives of URI in the wider community, and with alumni and friends of the university. They give back in manifold ways, such as supporting Habitat for Humanity, serving as Peer Advocates (see our homepage for the story), or saving lives by donating bone marrow.
Of course, there are times when athletics programs and student-athletes fall short. Intercollegiate athletics, especially in Division I, has suffered both chronic and episodic problems that are serious and troubling. It appears that the cultures of athletics on some campuses may be deeply damaging to the institutions. But both minor and serious problems occur in practically all endeavors that involve people. At URI the athletic leadership and coaches are committed to building a culture of excellence – in competition, in academics, and in service. It is also a culture that embraces diversity, instills pride in oneself and in URI, and that develops leadership, and thereby strengthens the university. Moreover, athletics can enhance a university’s brand, its reputation, and even its funding. In the final analysis, however, I think the presence and qualities of our student athletes, and the tremendous positive contributions they make to the life of the URI community, justifies our investment in them and in athletics.