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Are College Athletics Bad for Colleges?

Jan 18, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

In the wake of the Penn State scandal comes increased scrutiny for college athletics programs. Critics suggest that the athletics culture encouraged a policy of silence regarding scandalous incidents that led up to Jerry Sandusky’s indictment. Athletics programs can come to dominate a school, drawing money and attention away from its academic programs. Is that a good thing—for any school?

Pros of College Athletics

They make a lot of money—which can be used for academic programs

Not every school’s athletics programs make money. But a school like Penn State, with a very high-level football team, for example, can bring in a lot. And that money can be used for anything—increasing and improving academic programs, giving scholarships to needy students, improving school facilities, and more.


The truth is, there are pros and cons to college athletics programs. There were many critics of schools that emphasized athletics over academics well before the Penn State scandal.

They boost contributions from donors

A strong athletic team like Penn State’s football team can create a palpable sense of school spirit that extends long past student graduations. Among schools with top teams, it’s not unusual to find high levels of alumni contributions. For instance, Penn State accepted $21 million in alumni donations to the athletic department in 2010. Ohio State, which also has an extremely strong athletics program, earned over $27 million in alumni donations the same year.

They increase applications

Schools often claim that a strong athletics program drives up interest among students and application numbers year-over-year. Especially if a college has a winning season, it’s not a stretch to assume high school students who attend the games or who follow college sports will get caught up in the excitement and want to go to the school.

Drawbacks of Athletics Programs

Many schools charge high fees to support athletics

Not every school’s athletics programs make money—this is true even of NCAA Division I teams. Still, even those schools want to invest in their athletics for all the benefits listed above. According to an article in USAToday, colleges are raising the fees that students pay for athletics—and athletics costs can represent as much as 23% of the required annual cost. This can amount to thousands of dollars for every student, even those that care more about academics than athletics.

Athletics can reduce the academic atmosphere on campus

While many athletes are academically capable, others are admitted based on their athletic prowess alone—and may not be ready for college. There can be immense pressure among professors to pass star athletes who are struggling in classes; some colleges offer watered-down versions of courses primarily targeted to student athletes. Critics point out that this can reduce the academic atmosphere of a university.

Athletics draws money from academics

While it’s true that some athletics programs make money, they also demand huge investments by the college—and schools often funnel that money from academic programs. In addition, many colleges will give more in scholarships to student athletes than to even the most academically-prepared non-athletes.

The truth is, there are pros and cons to college athletics programs. There were many critics of schools that emphasized athletics over academics well before the Penn State scandal, and others who believed that college athletics brought a lot of benefits. Which you believe might have something to do with how much of a sports fan you are—and whether athletics was a big part of your college experience personally. For many students, college athletics was a key part of their lives on campus. For others, however, it was mainly a distraction—and students who don’t care about athletics often resent the resources colleges put toward athletics programs. At the heart of it, many colleges have to ask what their overall purpose is—academics or athletics?


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