Competing for basketball and football players

In its written response to a Congressional inquiry over its tax-exempt status, the NCAA reveals that it spends more than twice as much per male basketball student-athlete in Division I ($158,000) than it does for a football student-athlete ($75,000). Is it possible that the larger size of football teams accounts for all of this, or is something else going on?

Certainly scale economies play a role. Separate locker rooms and training facilities exist, but costs are spread over more players in football, even though more space is needed for the latter. Average cost of transportation probably also declines with team size.

But the size of this difference is large enough to wonder if we could see something else. In particular, consider the difference in competition for an 18-year-old basketball player versus a football player. The NFL has strict limits on age and class of student-athletes who can be eligible for the draft (see this from the Maurice Clarett decision, for example), while until very recently high school athletes could enter the NBA. The NBA age limit now at 20 helps colleges, which should lead to a reduction in expenditures on basketball. In short, you don’t have to wow each athlete away from the NBA (or Europe) with all the latest in training and dormitory facilities, or promise them the Maui Classic each fall, etc.

But it’s never been there for the college football athlete, who now plays an extra game without any additional compensation. NCAA president Myles Brand writes,

Athletics, like every other department on campus, cannot operate without sufficient revenues to meet expectations. Increasing revenue, however, is not the only reason. Some but not all teams were already playing 12 games in football. Permitting a 12th game for all teams was more fair. The stabilization of games in basketball eliminated similar unfair practices in that sport.

In both cases, the season was expanded by a week, which reduces the time devoted to academics. This is justified to get “sufficient revenues”; if I told my faculty that we needed to teach ten additional students each to stabilize our faculty-student ratio, they might wonder what they get in return. Not so the student-athlete.

“Oh, but they earn more after college!” Um, not exactly. Some do, some don’t. “Oh, but it is a help to minority students.” Not exactly, either. Most athletes are white, but they do little to displace minority students. So when Brand says in its letter that “Athletics contests are the laboratory for lessons taught in practice in the same way theatrical or musical performances provide practical application of the lessons taught in rehearsals,” it’s hard to say whether there is a high return on that investment, or why it warrants tax-exempt status.

(Cross-posted at SCSU Scholars.)

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