Should We Get Rid Of College Sports?

Spelman College's recent decision to ditch its athletics program for a comprehensive wellness initiative has spurred a conversation about college sports culture. A historically black all-women’s college in Atlanta, Spelman will devote its modest $1 million athletics budget to an initiative that emphasizes lifelong fitness for all students, pushing activities such as swimming, yoga, Zumba, and tennis.

Because its student body comprises such a specific demographic, Spelman is better poised than most schools to make such a sweeping institutional shift. Nonetheless, the decision raises questions about the role of athletics in the university system as a whole. Sports indisputably benefit the students who participate in them, but the current structure often excludes, and even hurts, wide swaths of the overall student population.

Spelman president Beverly Daniel Tatum explains that the school’s decision springs from a desire to better cater to the women who attend. "We know that 4 out of 5 women of African descent [are] overweight or obese," she says. "We know that black women are twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. We know that black women over the age of 20 — something like 40% or higher — already have hypertension, high blood pressure."  According to Tatum, just 4% of Spelman students are athletes (about 80 of its 2,100 students), while 300 take part in its wellness program. So the choice to exchange traditional athletics for wellness seems a self-aware, forward-thinking move for Spelman. 

It also throws into sharp relief the exclusionary culture of NCAA athletics, particularly among Division I schools. Among public universities in the six biggest NCAA conferences, spending per player was more than $100,000 in 2010. That's six to 12 times more than the amount spent per student on academics. That kind of spending disparity gets even more alarming when you consider how few students actually play a sport. Spelman isn’t alone with its minuscule athlete numbers; there are 400,000 student athletes nationwide, but 18.6 million undergraduates.

And it isn't just non-athletes who are excluded from the benefits of such heavy sports spending. Women athletes are frequently sidelined in the current college athletics system. Thanks to Title IX, the number of female athletes is ten times what it was in 1972 — but in D-I schools, men's programs use 70% of scholarship funds, 77% of operating budgets, and 83% of recruiting budgets. Men's sports of course attract a wider audience than women's; this year's NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships had 17,500 spectators, while the men’s brought in 77,000. But should attendance matter when it comes to budget allocations? The connections between revenue, publicity, and spectatorship are obvious, but what’s less clear is why top-level athletics are tied to our education system at all.

I'm not expecting a Division I school to follow Spelman's path anytime soon — an all-female, D-III college can eliminate sports in relative peace, because they play so much less of a role in revenue and name recognition. But large universities dictate so much of our national sports culture, and that structure leaves the vast majority of students without support for physical fitness. As Spelman has already recognized, expanded wellness initiatives could curb health problems for all students, not just those who move units in the team memorabilia store.

There's no question sports are important and valuable to the students who participate in them. They help students build community, confidence, teamwork, and time management skills, but those are benefits that could translate to fitness programs for more students. “"I started thinking about the state-of-the-art wellness program we could develop if we reallocated the money were spending on the sports program that was benefiting a very small number of students," Tatum says. “We could flip that script, and we could put that money into a program for everyone.”