Putting college sports in perspective

The recent death of Notre Dame student videographer Declan Sullivan has sparked a debate on how serious college sports have become. Sullivan was killed while filming a football practice when the hydraulic lift he was filming from fell over because of high winds. Was it necessary to put Sullivan atop that lift in such terrible weather? Did the football team really need to practice in those conditions? Why is it even necessary to film practices? The tragic event in South Bend, Indiana highlights a much larger problem: the world of collegiate athletics has spun out of control. College athletes are amateurs, and per NCAA rules, are forbidden from profiting from their skills while enrolled in college. But this isn’t to say that college sports, specifically football, haven’t become big business. USA Today reported in 2008 that Notre Dame’s deal with NBC to broadcast football games was worth $9 million per year. The Washington Post noted that the Southeastern Conference has a 15 year television deal with CBS and ESPN, worth $3 billion. Mack Brown, the head coach of the Texas football squad, makes $5.1 million. To put this into perspective, Kevin Sneddon and Mike Lonergan, the head coaches of the UVM men’s ice hockey and basketball teams respectively, made around $150,000 each during the 2007-08 year, according to the Burlington Free Press. When multi-million dollar coaches’ salaries and television contracts enter the picture, it’s no longer “just a game.” While students themselves aren’t compensated, their talent translates into millions of dollars in revenue for instutitions. In 2006, the NCAA estimated that college sports teams generated $4.2 billion in revenue; they were more profitable than the NBA that year. When the expense of these burgeoning athletics departments is passed onto students, it is clear that institutions place athletics above academics. The University of Cincinnati hiked the price of tuition in 2005 to cover a $24 million athletic department debt. While the big-revenue sports like football and men’s basketball may pay for themselves in the long run, academic success may fall secondary to success on the field. Last year, 12 of the top 25 ranked NCAA men’s basketball teams posted graduation rates of less than 50 percent. In the wake of new academic regulations imposed by the NCAA, George Will of the Washington Post points out suspicious numbers of athletes in the same major, noting that 78 percent of Michigan football players majored in General Studies. I’m glad that UVM spends money on new academic buildings instead of new sports facilities. It’s okay with me that the visiting hockey team has to duck under a three-foot tall opening to get to their bench. As sad as it is to cut athletic programs, I applaud the University for cutting varsity baseball and softball instead of making deeper cuts into academic departments. Despite being a Division I school, UVM isn’t driven by athletics. Our academic reputation precedes are athletic success (though I’d hope so – only three teams finished with winning records last year.) We don’t have a football team or expensive stadiums. Our coaches aren’t plagued by ethics violations; our players aren’t involved in recruiting scandals. How clearer of a wake-up call than an unnecessary death of a student to realize that we take college sports just a little too seriously?