Opinion and Economic Analysis

HICKS: Educated athletes add value to the magic

April 10, 2010

I think I finally am beginning to understand the Hoosier delight with the game of basketball. Butler University’s splendid season certainly illuminated this passion.

For someone not born and bred in Indiana, this team certainly provided an advantageous lesson in the sport, and what it means to so many. But that’s not why I write. I will instead share an economic and educational lesson about college athletes here.

Both despite and because of what we saw April 5, college athletics are much beloved and maligned. A good many folks in academe dislike college athletics because they are thought to pull resources away from the classroom and weaken the scholarly focus of a university. And that is partly right. Forrest Gump should not have played that fifth year at Alabama, and the NCAA routinely penalizes universities for even trifling infractions. But that is the smallest part of the story.

The greater truth is that what we learn from athletics might be just as important as what we learn in the classroom. Today, colleges large and small fret a great deal about ethics and character education. Yet every parent of a kindergartner knows that those lessons are first reinforced outside the family on grassy soccer and tee-ball fields.

To suppose that a hard-fought game of anything is not relevant to the 18- to 22-year-old denizens of a university is simply wrong. It is telling that at the American schools where character development matters most—West Point, Annapolis and Virginia Military Institute—every student has to participate in organized athletics each and every semester.

The composition of the Butler team clarifies this point. Even on this team, I’d bet the number of future physicians exceeds the number of future professional players by two to one. Butler might be different, and we all love them for it. But, in this respect, they are not unlike other schools.

Scholarship athletes across the country are far more likely to go to graduate school, start a business, or become classroom teachers than they are to move on to professional sports. This is true in big schools with big programs. I know this firsthand, having taught at three universities with unbeaten regular football seasons (Tennessee, Marshall and Ball State). Former students of mine play Sunday football each week, but even at Tennessee, graduate or professional degrees among former players outnumber professional contracts by a wide margin.

The poorest criticism of college athletics is that it draws financial resources from education. That isn’t even true in the strict accounting of a program. In reality, athletics educate as well as draw resources into a university for other activities.

Butler spent $11 million on athletics this year, most of it for scholarships. I assure you they made it back just this week, in part from tens of thousands of alumni enchanted by the magic of athletes going to class in the morning and playing their hearts out at night.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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