Time to Take a Hard Look at School Sports

I am a college sports fan, always have been, always will be. I love watching the games, but I haven't liked watching what has been happening to the role of sports in our educational system.

Certainly, from a very early age sports should be part of the system. Healthy bodies, understanding teamwork and competition, learning the value of hard work and achieving excellence -- these are all important goals and values that participation in organized sports can encourage and nurture.

We seem to be forgetting those values. The extraordinary rise in pay for professional athletes may be one contributing factor. News of the latest $100 million contract spurs too many high school students to put aside the books and concentrate instead on developing a good jump shot or a blazing fastball. In many communities, college scholarships do not go to those who spend nights and weekends studying. They go to kids who can block and tackle.


Far too many of these teenagers not only dream about but actually plan on a career in professional sports. Forget books. That's not where the money is. Yet according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, an NBA team will eventually draft only 3 in 10,000 high school senior boys playing interscholastic basketball. Only 8 in 10,000 -- still less than one tenth of one percent--of high school senior boys playing interscholastic football will eventually be drafted by an NFL team. The numbers in professional baseball and other professional sports are about the same. Placing all your bets as a teenager on making it as a professional athlete isn't much better than planning your life by buying a lottery ticket.

Too many of these teenage athletes will be left without the skills to succeed in a modern competitive environment. There is an even crueler reality. Even those few who do play professionally may have real problems. Sports Illustrated reported in March that 60 percent of NBA players are broke within five years of retiring. Within two years after their brief careers are over, 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

How do we persuade teenagers that academic, rather than athletic, excellence is a lot more likely to result in a successful life and, yes, financial rewards? The people who run college sports are not helping.

I live for college basketball's March Madness and enjoy watching college football, but it is clear that both are having problems. On virtually every Division 1 campus, the highest paid faculty members are coaches. In some cases, these coaches continue to make millions after egregious violations. The most glaring example is one basketball coach who has taken three teams to the final four NCAA championships in the past 15 years. Two of his teams had to forfeit honors because of recruiting violations. Both schools were put on probation, but this coach is presently working for a third top basketball powerhouse. What kind of message does that send about college educational priorities?

College football puts a great product on the field every Saturday but the costs are great. Of the top 120 college football programs all but 14 lose money. The University of Florida's athletic department has three airplanes to use at its discretion. I wonder how many airplanes are at the disposal of the engineering department.

The capper for me was last year's BCS football championship game. Bowl games used to be the way a small number of fortunate college football programs balanced their books, but last year it was different. Auburn and Oregon played in the championship game. Both teams received about $2.3 million for their appearance and you would assume a lot of that would go to help other academic university programs. You would be wrong. Oregon ran a DEFICIT on the game of almost $300,000 and Auburn doubled that with a $600,000 loss. What message does it send on priorities when a college spends almost $3 million on one football game?

Sports are an indispensable part of America, but educating our kids is the most important factor in determining our country's long-term success in a highly competitive world. It is time to take a hard look at the role of sports in our educational system.

Column and cartoon originally published in Wilmington News Journal, 7/10/11.