Does football distract public schools from their mission?

This post originally appeared on U.S. News and World Report’s
Knowledge Bank blog. 

As we recover from the weekend’s Super Bowl parties, now may be a good time to reflect: do our public schools have a healthy relationship with football? Or has our cultural fascination with football allowed our public institutions of learning—both in K-12 and the collegiate level— to drop the ball on their more urgent, core objectives?

We all know about the growing cost of going to college. Yet, many may not know some of this growth is due to the cost of college athletics, commonly driven by football. The American Association of University Professors points out that the growth in college costs are not equal across institutional programs, and in recent years much of the growth hints at a systemic bias towards athletic spending . Looking over seven recent years that included the Great Recession, costs per-athlete increased by 25 percent or more across various types of institutions, while instructional spending per student was more or less flat.

According to the Delta Cost Project, institutions typically spend three to six times as much on each student athlete than what they spend on each full-time student. Part of these costs may be justifiable. Sports are an important part of making a university stand out in the public sphere, and success in sports helps to drive applicants and raise selectivity. Athletics can also be a mechanism through which alumni stay connected to the institution that can come with a payout, as major bowl game appearances can prompt a bump in donations to many universities.

And of course, college football is a big source of revenue for major institutions. Yet, revenues coming in do not always signal profit. Costs for many college football programs exceed revenues in even the most prosperous conferences.  Outside of the major athletic conferences, deficits are even more acute.

Deficits have to be covered somehow, and often it’s student fees and general tuition funds that help subsidize programs in the red. In other words, the cost of college football is a part of the growing cost of college and it helps contribute in a modest way to the growing balance of student loans, now exceeding $1.2 trillion nationwide.

This is not just a collegiate issue, but distorted spending on athletics also occurs in public high schools. Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University reports of doing a cost analysis with a district in the western U.S. where she found a per-participant cost of cheerleading totaled $1,348 and $829 for football. Less than $350 per student was spent on math instruction for the year.

It is unclear how widespread this disproportionate spending is among U.S. high schools, but it raises the question of whether our spending in public education is consistent with our academic goals. And, from an equity perspective, the proposition of fielding a football team using scarce public resources implies the funds for a few student players comes at the expense of the many other students.

One might also argue that public schools’ sponsorship of football may also be at odds with the notion of training the next generation of thought leaders, given the high rate of injury—particularly brain injury— associated with the sport. Though Will Smith’s new movie Concussion provokes some serious questions about the physical and mental health consequences of the sport among professional football players, there are far more high school football players in the country who incur brain injuries at significantly higher rates than more seasoned athletes.

I’m not against football, but I do think we as a society should collectively examine whether our culture of sports—with football at the top—may be distracting us from our schools’ main goals. After all, though there are a few excellent high-school athletes who can make it on a college team, and in exceptional cases to the pros, there are far more students who stand to benefit from re-aligning the actions of our public schools with their academic, democratic objectives.