Commercialization of College Sports
Many people might say that commercialization has ruined sports. U.S. sports fans are, for the most part, nostalgic about the institution of sports as a way to enjoy leisure with one’s family, to relax, to teach skills (most frequently people cite the development of leadership and team-building skills) that will allow athletes to find success after they leave the field of play, whether their career ends with Little League, high school, college, or even professional sports.
Sports sociology research often finds a sporting tradition at a high school that produces tennis champions or star quarterbacks or pitchers on an annual basis. For example, during the late 1970s the baseball program of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw High School placed virtually every member of the roster in the minor or major leagues, including the former Mets and Dodgers superstar Darryl Strawberry. We rarely see an analysis wherein sports are used as the organizing principle to obtain goals that have little to do with running, throwing, jumping, and/or “social capital” obtained from parents. Frank Parkin, a sociologist, had this to say about this issue:
What is especially remarkable about [sports] . . . is how relatively few of the children of successful footballers, boxers, baseball and tennis stars, or the celebrities of stage and screen have succeeded in reproducing their parents’ elevated status. One reason for this would seem to be that the skills called for in these pursuits are of a kind that must be acquired and cultivated by the individual in the actual course of performance, and which are thus not easily transferred from parent to child. (1998, 130–131)
Sports force people to learn “sports skills” and how to sell those skills to the highest bidder—or, as economists like to say, whatever the market will bear.This situation brings about commercialization.
Deeply implicated in the commercialization of sports is what we can call the “athletic arms race.” We see the athletic arms race in intercollegiate sports and, with free agency, in professional sports. Because of it, athletes and the sports they play come in second to ill attention to academic studies, contract disputes, unruly behavior, and movement from one team to another.
All of the aforementioned problems began in 1984 when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that playing the sport of college football is an ordinary part of college business and that hence the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has no right to force its members to abide by a central plan to broadcast football games.
Sports are an institution in U.S. society—and becoming one of the most important institutions—mirroring all that is important in our society, especially the importance of money. Although money is not the only measure of importance, it says a lot about what a society considers important.
“Show Me the Money,” Professional Style
In July 2004 the most recent National Basketball Association draft took place. The outcome was astonishing. During the first round high school players were chosen over the more accomplished college and international players. Dwight Howard of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy was chosen over everyone else, including the University of Connecticut’s Emeka Okafor, perhaps the most dominant college player in the United States in 2003. Howard sported his Orlando Magic cap, his braces glistening in the spotlight, as he shook hands with NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Howard, and many others drafted, will earn $1.8 million for the first three or so years as a pro. Howard became the third high school player taken first overall in the National Basketball Association draft, touching off a record haul of eight prep players in the first nineteen selections for 2004.
Portland, with the thirteenth draft choice, selected Brooklyn prep star Sebastian Telfair, a cousin of NBA standout Stephon Marbury. Telfair, an eighteen-yearold, already has a lucrative shoe endorsement contract (he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school) reportedly worth $12 million over six years. This sum of money is particularly potent when one realizes that Sebastian Telfair’s high school coach, for whom Telfair played for only a month or two before the draft, makes a fraction of what Telfair will make going into his first NBA season.
“Show Me the Money,” College Style
Just as salaries for professional athletes have skyrocketed (during the 1950s professional athletes earned less than the median income for men), money has become central to the administration of intercollegiate athletics as well. Athletic directors make salaries on par with university presidents, and coaches in the high-profile sports of football and men’s basketball make five, ten, even twenty times more than the average college professor on the same campus. College athletic budgets are exorbitant and stretch into all aspects of sports: coaching salaries, stadiums, and recruiting.
Consistent with the search for student-athletes globally is the need for athletic programs to adopt a corporate model to upgrade facilities such as locker rooms and stadiums.This need is essential for two reasons: (1) to competitively recruit sophisticated student-athletes who are well aware of their needs for special amenities to which the college must respond and (2) to expand and retain a fan base that has become accustomed to luxury accommodations. These dual needs fuel the increasingly competitive athletic arms race.
Locker Rooms and Stadiums
Every male who has played sports, from Little League baseball to high school sports to intercollegiate sports, knows that locker rooms traditionally have been dirty and funky. However, those days are past, at least for high-profile athletic programs. A central part of the athletic arms race during the new millennium and especially at the Division 1A level is upgraded locker rooms and megastadiums.
In the autumn of 2003 the University of Oregon, at the expense of $26,667 per locker ($3.2 million total), acquired the best locker-room facility in the United States, better than those of most professional football and basketball teams. Inside this mammoth structure the doors open and shut at a rate of 1 meter per second and can accommodate eight players entering at once. The Ducks have 152-centimeter plasma TVs (at a cost of $15,000 each) that are outfitted for Xbox game systems. The locker room is a two-story structure, and each locker is equipped with its own ventilation system to “personalize” perspiration. Each locker has outlets for both video games and the Internet as well as a security system that is activated by a code that includes a player’s uniform number and a scan of his thumbprint. Other schools in the PAC 10 and nationally have followed suit. Several, including Oregon, have also built new indoor practice facilities.
The athletic arms race also includes the expansion or construction of stadiums. Many Division 1A colleges have built new stadiums. For example, Folsom Field Stadium at the University of Colorado at Boulder has twenty-eight private boxes and nineteen hundred club seats and was built at a cost of $42 million.While the University of Colorado is investing in the new stadium, faculty in the Colorado system are fighting to keep the legislature from closing several institutions in the system. The University of Colorado also has spent the last year engaged in a series of lawsuits that charges Buffalo football players and coaches with a variety of uncivil behaviors.
Coaches’ Salaries and Perks
Also part of the athletic arms race are the buying, selling, and trading of coaches. Before Steve Spurrier left Florida, the United States had two $1 million coaches. Coaches are expensive.They must have not only milliondollar salaries, but also full access to facilities during the summer to host their camps and contracts that have “appendages,” such as a certain number of game tickets, airline tickets for travel, and product endorsements that monetarily are not tied to annual salaries. Before Matt Doherty was fired from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill he had a base salary of $150,000 but had a “shoe deal” with Nike worth $500,000.
Today approximately twenty-three U.S. coaches are paid more than a million dollars a year, many of them at programs that will never make the bowl championship series or break into the top twenty-five ranking.
Another example of the athletic arms race was the promotion of University of Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington. The University of Oregon in Eugene, a public institution, under the direction of athletic director Bill Moos made headlines a few years back when it advertised, on the Times Square billboard in New York City, its Heisman Trophy quarterback candidate, Joey Harrington, at a cost of $250,000 for three months.
As frivolous as the Joey Harrington promotion was, perks for student-athletes are serious business. Such perks are institutionalized in the academic support services that are burgeoning on college campuses. Academic support services are a part of an athletic department’s infrastructure designed to address the growing problem of the academic weakness—what Professor Cantor (1996) calls “underperformance”—of many incoming student-athletes. For example, at the University of Missouri in 1998 the Shelden Resource Center opened in a 900-square-meter facility with a budget of $130,000 for tutors and $500,000 for operating costs. It has seven full-time employees and thirty-six computers. At the University of Illinois seventy tutors, sixty computers, and ten full-time employees are housed in the 743- square-meter Irwin Academic Center.The athletic arms race is about expanding capitalism. The enterprise is used to attract student-athletes and fans to both athletic contests and the academic institution itself.
Faculty members at a number of major sports colleges have begun to question two elements of the athletic arms race. One element is the slip of paper that is brought to professors informing them that certain students are excused a certain number of classes, thus leaving the professors without control of their classrooms but knowing that every student in the classroom does not have this privilege.The second element is the number of athletic events that takes place during the school day. Not only has the number of such events increased, but also for a sport such as basketball, a team may play every day or night of the week.When combined with travel, this schedule results in even more missed classes. Many of these problems occur in high-profile sports, but they are not confined to Division 1A and exist even in the so-called lower-profile sports programs at liberal arts colleges. Student-athletes play sports such as golf and tennis nearly year around in schedules that include tournaments that may take student-athletes away from campus for a week at a time.
Athletic contests “on the road” also cost colleges financially. The costs of airline tickets, hotel rooms, and food for coaches and student-athletes can be a major portion of any athletic department budget. Moreover, many college football programs have adopted the practice of housing teams off campus in hotels on the night before home games.The cost of housing football teams off campus for home games can range from $6,000 per night to $50,000 for the home game season.
Finally, the athletic arms race can be viewed from another angle. Two colleges, Wisconsin and Michigan State, which are a few hours apart by bus, in 1992 traveled to Tokyo to play a regular season football game, forcing the colleges to delay final examinations. The NCAA, in connection with its TV deals (such as the $6 billion March Madness deal with CBS), is interested in increasing its fan base and TV market.
This globalization of sports follows the model of corporate expansion, thus taking control of intercollegiate athletics away from the colleges and placing that control in the hands of marketing and advertising executives who do not have a penchant for higher education but rather are interested only in profits.
Perks for student-athletes begin long before they sign a letter of commitment and accept an athletic scholarship. Recruiting is also a central part of the athletic arms race and involves a large package of inducements.
Here is a description of seventeen-year-old high school recruit Willie Williams:
Willie Williams tells us that after flying to Tallahassee in a private jet, he was taken to the best restaurant in the city by a Florida State University coach. After ordering a lobster tail at $49.95 and a steak at market value, he then saw that there was no restraint by others at the table. He called the waiter back and made his order four lobstertails, two steaks, and a shrimp scampi. There were a dozen other recruits at the table.
In Miami at the Mayfair House Hotel Willie’s room, the Paradise Suite, featured a Jacuzzi on the balcony. He said he felt that he was living like King Tut and concluded that he would major in business so this lifestyle would continue. (Navarro 2004)
A central tool in the recruitment process is sex—everything from titillation to intercourse. Many colleges have begun to follow a practice—started by the legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant—of using coeds to lure male student-athletes to their campuses. “Hostess squads” have nice names such as “Garnet & Gold Girls,” “Lady Bells,” and “Tiger Paws.” Recently Sports Illustrated published an article on the widespread use of “hostess girls” to recruit male student-athletes that captured the essence of many hostess squads: “honeys for the boys.”
The essence of the athletic arms race is that colleges must expand to remain competitive.That is, they must seek better ways of recruiting blue chip athletes, they must develop better relationships with fans and boosters, many of whom must be financially able, and they must provide facilities that lure both student-athletes and fans. The expenditures are not voluntary; they are a must to compete in big-time sports.
Although people most often think of the impact of athletic programs on the functioning of Division 1A colleges, as Bowen and Levin point out, because of the small student bodies at Ivy League schools and liberal arts colleges, which often field more intercollegiate teams than do Division 1A schools, the ratio of studentathletes is disproportionately greater, thus increasing the impact of their presence with each incoming class.
Athletics and athletic programs have a far greater impact on the composition of the incoming class (and perhaps the campus ethos) at an Ivy League university or a small liberal arts college than at most Division 1A colleges.
We often read news stories about law-breaking behavior at every level of intercollegiate sports. Coaches are fired for having sex with co-eds and strippers, studentathletes are arrested for everything from driving under the influence to rape, domestic violence, and murder, and even athletic directors and college presidents have begun to be arrested for such behavior: They, too, are now being scrutinized. The instances mentioned here are not random but rather are a result, either directly or indirectly, of the commercialization in all sports, professional and commercial.
Earl Smith and Angela J. Hattery
See also Amateur vs. Professional Debate