The Jan. 12 op-ed by Jonathan Zimmerman, reprinted from the L.A. Times, is right about the hegemony of football in college sports, but it is superficial in two regards. First, the mention of Title IX neglects to add that of the three standards for compliance the courts have used only the most strict, creating needless problems for universities, and effectively eliminating some of the options Zimmerman claims exist under the law.
Second, and more importantly, Zimmerman fails to connect the transformation of college football into a business to the near-idolatry of the market system in American culture. Civilized societies work to preserve and promote things that have intrinsic value, even when lacking market value. This is what the not-for-profit sector, including higher education, is all about. But in contemporary America the forces of commerce and politics, abetted by an anti-science and anti-intellectual undertow identified decades ago by Richard Hofstadter, are gradually requiring non-profits to justify themselves in the marketplace. New standards of evaluation dictate that non-profits inappropriately be “run like a business.” The purpose of higher education – to equip one to lead a fuller, more meaningful life, and to be a good citizen in the Jeffersonian sense – thus becomes diluted and corrupted. It was always assumed that those with college degrees would enjoy higher incomes. But this was a dividend, not the major pursuit. Nowadays society takes for granted that the sole purpose of college for the individual is to get a better- paying job .The institution, moreover, is expected, as a condition of public and political support, to give priority to producing interchangeable human widgets for American business.
How should colleges and universities, especially public universities which have seen state appropriations decline so radically, respond? In having to make a business – rather than academic – decision, they will sense that most of what is of greatest intrinsic value will generate very little market support, and will actually have to run at a deficit. They will realistically determine they cannot make money through their fine arts productions, or their ground-breaking research, or their other contributions to new knowledge. The wonderful things they do for each individual student will not garner any short-run “profit.” The honors captured by faculty and students do not directly result in monetary return for the university. There is no monetary reward for sustaining a first-class library. The university’s share of the financial return on the economic development activities they spawn is small. And on and on. When they look at athletics, most of the Title IX programs run a deficit. Except for basketball at the University of Montana and a few other places, there are few gate receipts from women’s athletic contests. Even men’s basketball is generally unprofitable.
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Enter the role of football. The market loves football. A successful football team can financially support an entire athletic program. At some universities – Penn State, LSU – some of football’s “profits” have been routinely used to add support to the university’s main library. Big money loves football. Television and it’s advertisers greedily absorb the sport as part of their entertainment line-up, and increasingly they call the shots. At one time university presidents, through neglect, had virtually ceded control of the NCAA to their athletic directors and coaches. Problems ensued, and the presidents took over and enacted reforms, but the interregnum seems over. Now, because money is determinative and universities need it, the dollar dictates decisions, and individual presidents are swept up in the system.
It is not just the need for financial survival that causes universities to give in and try to make it in big time football. It is also reputation. Universities live by their reputations. At one time it was necessary only to impress peers, who were knowledgeable about the enterprise they shared. But now, with greater scrutiny from the public, politicians and the business community, the ground has shifted, and universities alone no longer determine what a university is, and what level of quality a given university has reached. To most of the public, the only window through which they view colleges and universities is athletics, especially football. It is not unrealistic to assume that in the public’s mind a university’s academic quality corresponds to its football prowess, because these are the universities they hear about, and whose teams they follow. Big time is big time. Thus, inevitably there result some successful, big-time football programs that are far ahead of their host universities in development and quality. Today, nearly all universities know the rewards of having winning football teams as essentially business enterprises are worth pursuing. Zimmerman is right about that; he just shows no sign of knowing why. Force universities to be run like businesses, rather than academies, and they will give the public circuses, if not bread.
Lawrence K. Pettit is retired and lives in Helena. He was Montana’s first Commissioner of Higher Education, and subsequently headed universities in Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania.