The United States is the only country in the world that weds higher education and amateur athletics inextricably together. The University of Michigan, to most of us, is not just an elite post-secondary research institution, but a football team, the home of Denard Robinson, famous rival of Ohio State. If I type "michi" into Google, auto-complete suggests "Michigan Football," "Michigan State Football," and "Michigan Football Schedule." Somehow, this doesn't strike us as odd.
A narrow view of the phenomenon suggests that football is primarily a marketing mechanism. Schools like Michigan attract both perspective applicants and alumni donors by virtue of having a competitive and successful football program. Defeating rivals, landing in major bowls, and fielding exciting players are all a boon to the University as a whole because, like any good marketing, successful football leads to more visibility and more positive emotional associations with the school on the part of donors and prospectives. All of which is true. Football, in particular, is a wonderful way for American colleges and universities to promote their brand.
Branding alone, however, does not account for the phenomenon as a whole. Any given university may want a great football program - or a great athletics program broadly - for branding and marketing reasons, but does the system on the whole really benefit higher education all that much? While the University of Michigan may be better off with a great football team than with a bad one, is the entire state university system better off by virtue of their football programs? I don't have an answer for that question, but it's worth posing.
Now, it's well-nigh impossible to imagine American higher education without competitive athletics. College football won't be going away, even if we could somehow prove that college football is bad for universities and colleges. That said, a better understanding of where sports fits into the ecology of higher education in the United States might help us think about hot-button issues in college athletics, including the debate over whether or not athletes should be paid.
The argument over paying college athletes - and especially big-time football and basketball players - has been hashed and rehashed in popular media. In short, the argument for paying players is, essentially, that they are making tons of money for their schools (and for media companies) with almost no compensation. The argument, at its heart, is capitalistic: college athletes do not get to participate in the free market for their services and skills, and that is unfair because there is a substantial market that others are participating in (coaches, ADs, ESPN, etc) built upon those very skills. The argument against paying college athletes is, broadly, that college sports are supposed to be an amateur endeavor, and that colleges and universities are primarily geared towards educational missions. Enrolling in a university - even on a football scholarship - means that you are a student first and foremost. Paying athletes for playing college sports, then, would further degrade the educational mission of the university. At its heart, what this argument really says is, "colleges and universities are not a capitalistic free market; they're a socialized public service."
Now, I'm not going to weigh in on either of those arguments, because the debate seems to me to be taking place in the wrong arena. There's no question that college athletes ought - in a capitalist system - to be compensated at market value for the benefits they bring to their institutions. There's also no question that colleges and universities do not by-and-large operate in anything resembling a true capitalist system. The reality is, both sides are right because neither is willing to admit the systematic and philosophical assumptions of the other.
The debate, however, is academic, because the route we're traveling down is unequivocally the capitalistic one. So what is that likely to look like?
In a purely capitalistic, free market higher education system institutions would have to pay their own players according to their market value. Instead of offering a scholarship to a desired recruit, a football program would have to offer a scholarship plus a salary or contract. In essence, college athletics would become professional, and colleges and universities would create professional athletics teams that operate alongside the University. Realistically, a great many of the current D1 college athletics programs would not be able to afford the competition this would create, and so we'd be left with a small number of elite athletics programs at wealthy schools that can afford to fund not only athletic scholarships, but also player salaries. As a result, the little money that travels from athletic departments to other parts of the university - in the form of both media contracts and donations - would almost certainly disappear (hence athletics would truly be "alongside" and not really "part" of the university).
From the athlete's perspective, there's nothing particularly wrong with this. He is likely to be better off in this system than in the current one. Unless, of course, he is a she. Or plays a sport other than basketball and football. Or isn't quite good enough to warrant anything beyond a scholarship. In our current system, very few athletic departments are profitable, thanks in large part to the many sports that college athletes play but no one watches. In a system with increased payouts to athletes in high-profile sports, it seems unlikely that those unprofitable sports programs would continue. And in a free market, that's as it should be. If women's volleyball can't turn a profit - or at least break even - it shouldn't exist.
Now, all of my analysis here is built upon the assumption that colleges, and not media outlets or other companies, will be paying student-athlete salaries. I think that's a safe assumption, but someone might argue that an elimination of the amateur status of college athletes would have little effect on institutions themselves, as very very few college athletes would warrant exorbitant salaries that schools could not afford. Rather, they might say, companies like ESPN or Nike or whoever would be the real payees in the form of sponsorships and commercial spots and so on. That's a fair assumption, but free agency in other American - and international - sports leagues suggests to me that institutions overpaying for marginal players is a more likely outcome.
As for the educational missions of institutions of higher learning in the truly free market system, it seems to me that they will be little changed. The biggest change is happening already anyway: less and less public money would go towards colleges and universities, which in turn would search for new revenue streams, including, most importantly, increased tuition and decreased financial aid. Professionalization of college athletics might infuse new revenues into the higher education system, but those revenues would almost certainly be dedicated primarily (or exclusively) towards funding the professional athletics programs. More and more universities would have to adopt the D3 sports model, where every player is a walk-on and no athletic scholarships are awarded because of how expensive it would be to field a competitive (and therefore economically viable) athletics program.
There is a good argument for this kind of system: it would allow the great majority of institutions the chance to essentially do away with one of their biggest expenses (both in terms of money and human capital). In a free market, if the University of Hawaii cannot really afford a D1 football program (let alone D1 basketball, baseball, volleyball, etc), it simply won't have one. In the end, that might actually be better for the university.
It's not hard to see, of course, that this is the direction we're going. The super-conference phenomenon is a consolidation of the most economically robust football programs into a bloq that effectively excludes the University of Hawaiis of the world from the most meaningful and, therefore, lucrative events like big-time bowl games and high-profile rivalries. It is probably only a matter of time before athlete compensation becomes a reality, and college sports is professionalized, as the institutions that can afford to pay their football players will already have divided themselves from those that cannot. The end of the whole process is, ultimately, that college sports will be an extremely visible part of higher education, with very little actual bearing on the educational missions of those schools.
While the professionalization of college athletics may not have too direct a bearing on the educational missions of colleges and universities, the underlying trend towards increased capitalization will. That's it's own post, but some of the results are already apparent: increased tuition, more and more course content moving online (though frequently with only dubious credentials, if any at all, available to graduates), an increasingly large access divide among socio-economic classes (that is, rich white kids who can afford tuition go to elite states schools or liberal arts colleges, while poor minority students go to vocational schools or online for-profits), and an ever-growing student debt bubble. Which all raises a significant question that the sports debate largely ignores, but shouldn't: what is the purpose of college education, both for the student and for society at large?