All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 2000

Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports by Andrew Zimbalist

Is the Athletic Tail Wagging the Academic Dog?

Princeton University Press • 1999 • 252 pages • $24.00

Turn on your television set almost any Saturday afternoon from September to March and the chances are pretty good that you will be able to find a college football or basketball game. You’ll see a lot of color and excitement. Dazzling athletic feats performed in a state-of-the-art facility before thousands of cheering fans.

That, of course, is the bright face that college sports always wants people to see. There is, however, a darker side that is rarely seen except by those who pierce the glitzy exterior. Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College and a long-time student of college sports, has done exactly that in his new book, Unpaid Professionals. It is worth reading even if you are not a sports fan; it may spoil some of the fun if you are.

Among collegiate sports powerhouses, the concept of the “student-athlete” has long been something of a joke. Well back into the 1800s, Zimbalist notes, colleges were using mercenaries to improve their chances of beating rivals, claiming that they were students when in fact they were not. Things are not much different today, except that the pretend students are actually enrolled and soak up money (ultimately taken from taxpayers in most instances) all year long, rather than just on game day. Many take courses with no intellectual content so they can maintain the minimum grade point average and leave college (usually without a diploma) as dull as the day they entered.

People and institutions respond to incentives, and there are big bucks to be had in winning in college sports—at least football and basketball. Schools seldom resist the temptation to build successful teams by letting academic standards slide. Zimbalist writes, “[M]any NCAA schools find the temptations of success too alluring to worry about the rules. Schools cheat. They cheat by arranging to help their prospective athletes pass standardized tests. They cheat by providing illegal payments to their recruits. They cheat by setting up rinky-dink curricula so their athletes can stay qualified. And when one school cheats, others feel compelled to do the same.”

There is a lot of evidence that the athletic tail is wagging the academic dog, and Zimbalist provides his readers with interesting facts such as these:

  • The University of North Carolina gives more than $3 million in athletic scholarships yearly to around 700 athletes, but only some $600,000 in academic merit scholarships among the rest of its 15,000 students.
  • Clemson University paid young black men from Columbia, South Carolina, to be on campus and pretend to be members of a black fraternity so the university would look more appealing to visiting black athletes.
  • The president of the University of Oklahoma said in a speech to the state legislature, “I hope to build a university of which our football team can be proud.”

Unlike some writers who shed crocodile tears over the supposedly exploited college athlete, Zimbalist doesn’t think their plight so bad. “Full scholarship rides, special eating and housing privileges, the right to carry Pell Grants on top of their scholarship, to receive several hundred dollars a year in special needs support, and preferential access to summer jobs are all adequate remuneration. Yes, there are star players who may generate a half-million dollars of revenue or more for their teams, but many of these stars will soon earn millions in the pros and they can leave anytime they like.”

Defenders of the sports system often claim that the “big-time” sports of football and basketball generate profits for the rest of the athletic department, but Zimbalist is skeptical. He observes that there is no set of uniform accounting rules for college athletics and the defenders can therefore get away with absurdities like this: The University of Massachusetts basketball team supposedly made a $1.78 million profit in 1997, but examination of its budget shows that the basketball team was charged with none of the cost for, among other things, insurance, maintenance, advertising, utilities, medical expenses, or debt service on the arena in which the team plays its home games. With a conservative cost allocation, Zimbalist thinks that the team actually lost around $1.1 million.

Although the book contains much that supports a free-market critique of the college sports system, the author doesn’t explicitly make one. He never mentions the word “taxpayer,” even though it’s obvious that the collegiate sports mania is heavily subsidized by them. Instead of concern for taxpayers, we get concern for “gender equity” in large doses. There’s strong support in the book for a laissez-faire approach whereby college sports would be told, “You survive only as long as you can pay your own way,” but Zimbalist’s recommendations are rather pallid ones, decidedly not of the Gordian Knot-cutting type.

Still, there is a substantial amount of good in Unpaid Professionals. It might have been a home run, but a double isn’t bad.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.