It's bowl time, but maybe colleges have gone too far with athletics

At UCLA, athletes are given priority over other students for highly desired courses.

At this celebratory moment in the year — I’m talking about the college bowl games -- let’s ponder the unthinkable: Have U.S. universities perhaps gone overboard in the promotion of and investment in college athletic teams?

The president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham says he’s killing the football program because it’s costing the public university about $20 million a year (and not bringing in wins). This could be a bit of budget brinksmanship, similar to UC President Janet Napolitano threatening tuition increases if she didn’t get more money.

But in any case, this raises valid questions about whether college sports — not just football, it runs the gamut — have become too big a deal at a time of national concern over the rising cost of a college education.

It’s true that private donations form a hefty portion of many, though not all, athletic programs. Many sports don’t bring in the money that a football or basketball program might. But college athletics are not nearly as big a deal in Europe as they are here in the United States, and everyone seems to survive just fine. Meanwhile, according to UAB President Ray L. Watts, the huge salaries for coaches and the cost of expensive facilities just keep rising.

Then there are the issues of the number of student sports that are offered to mediocre students who can play a sport well—all kinds of sports, so it’s a significant number of admissions--and scholarships that could be used to help extremely bright, studious students who have no money for college. At UCLA, a public university where students often have trouble signing up for courses they need or want, NCAA athletes are given priority when it comes to nabbing a course seat.

I’m all for well-rounded universities. They’re places where young adults grow as people, not just as scholars. And sports still have a place in them. But when the role of athletics escalates at the cost of academics, we should be taking in our bowl games with a grain of salt as well as a large bowl of guacamole. 

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