Last week, I wrote about “cupcake” scheduling in college football. It sparked an interesting debate in the comments and via phone/text with a few of my friends. The debate usually went along two paths, one reasonable (“You don’t understand the bleak situation at small universities, they need these games to survive.”), and one ridiculous (“You have never watched sports.”).

Focusing on the reasonable criticism, I have never attended a non-D1 school, or seen an athletic department struggle to the point that it sacrifices its reputation and students’ health to help balance the books. This begs the question: why do these schools bother fielding teams at all? Applied on a broader scale, what is the point of college sports? When only 22 universities studied in 2010 made more from athletics than they spent, it’s fair to wonder if athletics is a venture worth taking on.

To tackle this question, I picked a school at random from a large list, looked up its stated mission, and tried to understand how athletics plays into it. Here we have Bowling Green State University, a large school in the middle of Ohio, whose mission statement reads:

Bowling Green State University (BGSU) provides educational experiences inside and outside the classroom that enhance the lives of students, faculty and staff. Students are prepared for lifelong career growth, lives of engaged citizenship and leadership in a global society. Within our learning community, we build a welcoming, safe and diverse environment where the creative ideas and achievements of all can benefit others throughout Ohio, the nation and the world.

Let’s analyze:

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“…provides educational experiences inside and outside the classroom that enhance the lives of students, faculty, and staff.”

Since BGSU did not make the list above, we can assume – at least in 2009-10 – that they had an athletic budget deficit that year. Interestingly, Carol Cartwright, the former BGSU President, spoke on this issue in response to Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report on university spending. Cartwright, who served on the commission, says that these gaps are funded by a portion of the student fee that “also supports other areas of student life, like the student union, the student recreation center and health center.” Thus, athletics are not funded by academic spending per se.

That said, it is fair to assume that all students do help fund an athletics department that they, for the most part, don’t have access to. While all students can use the union, rec center, and health center, they can’t access athletics facilities without being on a team. In a university of over 20,000 students, this amounts to roughly 5% of students. Would the student body at large benefit without a volleyball team to cheer on and upgraded student facilities around the university? It’s hard to argue they would be worse off.

“Students are prepared for lifelong career growth, lives of engaged citizenship, and leadership in a global society.”

I am a firm believer in the non-athletic benefits of sports competition. As a child grows into adulthood, playing sports can develop a work ethic, sacrificing for the greater good, and leadership when coached correctly. College athletics could serve this portion of the university mission without costing millions of dollars.

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Consider Conference USA, where schools range in geography from East Carolina in North Carolina to Southern Methodist University in northern Texas. It costs a lot to send a team and its staff halfway across the country, and it has little impact on this or any part of the university mission.

“Within our learning community, we build a welcoming, safe and diverse environment where the creative ideas and achievements of all can benefit others throughout Ohio, the nation and the world.”

This is where the function of the athletics department most clearly misses the aim of the university as a whole. Sure the athletic teams at BGSU could foster a welcome environment…but a benefit to Ohio, the nation, and the world? Unlikely. It seems much more likely that BGSU students bring this portion of the mission to life in class and in their communities after graduation. When you boil it down, the “learning community” every college strives for isn’t helped, in large part, by the presence of an athletic department.

As someone who holds a Master’s degree in Sports Management, I have worked closely with Kinesiology, Physical Training, and Sports Science majors. These majors have the closest direct tie to the athletic department, but recreational sports provide a platform for learning with a farther reaching impact considering the number of students that participate.

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I love college sports, I swear. It’s also worthwhile to debate the merits of athletics and how they fit into the university’s overall mission. Both Cartwright and Sterling Steward, the Athletic Director at Savannah State (the subject of last week’s debate) consider the money spent on sports like football an investment in a better athletic program for the future. But so what? How is the mission of the university served by growing the sports program? Is the pride of fielding successful teams enough to justify the huge expenses?

While universities would be better off making sports into a club-style system where teams’ activities are limited in scope to what they can cover on their own, the billions of dollars out there (in the form of sponsorships, television contracts, etc.) are too much to consider this a realistic possibility. The innate hypocrisy of running an amateur sports program as a business means this is a debate that will be discussed for the foreseeable future.

How do you feel, SBM Sports Fans? What’s your answer to the basic question: outside of the 22 schools that cover what they spend…what’s the point of having a college sports program?