What is the Soul of College Sports?

Here's what I believe

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

A recurring theme in most of my conversations over the last month is that the very soul of college sports is in peril. I saw that language from Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago and later from the President of Oregon State University. I’ve seen it in my text messages with ADs, commissioners, and staffers. I’ve seen it in stories about burnout all over the industry. I’ve seen it in response to the latest round of conference realignment. I’ve heard the complaints about the new Recruiting Industrial Complex, congressional intervention, and bloated calendars. I’ve heard it from my readers, non-industry friends, and more.

When the ball is kicked and the lights come on, people are still watching, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that there is broad unease about the state of college athletics, and not just from typical corners of academia and certain segments of elite media.

Shoot, even Andrew Coats, the lawyer who argued against the NCAA in the famous Oklahoma Board of Regents vs NCAA Supreme Court case that opened the floodgates of TV money, is worried that “I screwed up college football across the board.” 

Even the “winners” aren’t really that happy!

Pointing out what is wrong with the current system is useful, but it’s the easiest part of the process. In order for anybody to meaningfully build something better, that system needs to be built from clearly defined positive principles. Muddling through decisions with the moral clarity of Justice Stewart defining pornography (eh, we’ll know good policy when we see it!) makes it easy to end up here, somewhere that no stakeholder is particularly happy about.

So what’s the soul of college sports actually supposed to be? What are the principles we should be working from?

I don’t think I can solve that question alone. But I can share what I’ve come to deeply believe, after writing about college athletics professionally for a decade and rooting for them much longer than that.

If you’re going to read this newsletter, it’s only fair to know where I’m coming from, right?

Every member of the college sports ecosystem has dignity, importance, and worth

My belief in this particular principle stems from the theological, not the academic or the political. I was raised in a faith tradition that taught that every single human was a literal Child of God, endowed with a divine heritage and spark.

Not every Sunday School lesson stuck with me into my mid-30s, but this one really did. I’ve taken it to mean that if all humans can claim divine lineage, then not only are we all siblings (and should treat each other as such), and that everybody deserves dignity.

I share this not to imply that one cannot reach a similar conclusion through other means, only that for me, it came from faith.

I try to apply that principle in how I cover and think about college athletics. I deeply, deeply believe that Power Five football and men’s basketball are not the only college athletic programs that have value or importance. Everybody, including all athletes (from USC’s quarterback to an NAIA soccer player) has value, as do the trainers, operations specialists, broadcasters, administrators, coaches, fans, nutritionists, and everybody else involved in the operation of this enterprise. Because everybody matters, the system should take great care to protect everyone’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Policy changes should be evaluated in how they impact everybody, not just a handful of elite recruits or programs.

And on that note,

“Profitability” should not be how the value of an athletic program is decided

Part of this is because of accounting. I’ve written this a thousand times in my career and I imagine I’ll have to do it a thousand times more before I finally log off for good, but athletic department budgets (EALA data, FRS reports, Knight Database, etc) are not the same thing as a P&L statement or our bank statements. The ‘revenues’ may not be cash deposits, the ''expenses’ may be paper accounting, and what isn’t on the spreadsheet may matter more than what’s actually there. Athletic departments are legally non-profit entities, and are not reporting revenues like a publicly traded company.

To look at a Knight Commission chart and declare that a department is or is not “profitable” is bad accounting.

For example, every single athletic team in this country generates revenue, from P5 football to Big South Softball. That revenue may come from ticket sales, parking fees, or hot dogs, it might come from conference distributions, or it might come from generated tuition from the athletes (revenue that doesn’t show up on the athletic department budget). There aren’t really ‘non-revenue’ sports, just sports that generate more revenue than others.

Obviously, many athletic programs do not generate enough revenue to offset their expenses. But so what? Why should profitability be the only perspective we use to evaluate the worth of a program? We shouldn’t do that for the English department, or the HR department, or the university archives. College sports, at least at this very moment, are still tied to colleges, which are non-profit entities with an educational focus.

A program can be meaningful to fans, deeply meaningful for the athletes, help train athletes and students for potential careers, and provide a litany of other benefits, despite not generating enough ticket or TV revenue to offset expenses. That’s okay. That’s what fundraising is for. That’s what multimedia rights sales are for.

That isn’t to say that departments should be wasteful, or that they shouldn’t seek to be good stewards of resources. But everybody involved has a moral obligation to evaluate athletics with a wider perspective than pure profits, just like we should for every other component of a university.

I could not more strongly disagree with the mindset depicted here. If, in a fit of coldhearted realism, the enterprise needs to move in this direction, then it ought to start paying labor and taxes and everything else that comes with being a regular ol’ corporation, and we ought to finally snuff out the pretense that it is in any way related to a college. Just call it Seminole Sports Club LLC.

Speaking of paying labor…

The longer we go without paying the athletes, the longer we make liars out of everybody

You know, and I know, and everybody knows, that the majority of collective-driven, NIL activity surrounding elite football and basketball players has nothing to do with the actual name, image, or likeness of the athletes. That activity is, as Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick described here, “talent acquisition fees where I’m paying you to come to our school.”

The tragedy with all of this, to me, isn’t that money is influencing recruiting decisions. That’s been happening since the early 1900s, and honestly, I don’t think is an issue at all. Money influences where we decide to attend school, where we decide to live, and what jobs we decide to take…that’s real life. Pretending that accepting money in exchange for athletic services somehow sullies one’s ability to earn an education or compete is a downright unAmerican argument. I mean that literally…that’s some classist 1890s English baloney.

The tragedy to me is that this still isn’t honest. Pretending that talent acquisition fees are somehow marketing expenses not only confuses legitimate brands, fans, and athletes, but it fundamentally undermines many of the core values that higher education is supposed to stand for.

Higher education institutions are already facing a crisis of trust in the American public, as are many other formally respected pillars of community and civic life. That institution cannot hope to regain trust if it insists on preaching about academic achievement, personal character, and service to the community while upholding an institution built upon dishonesty in the other.

I think good, honorable people can disagree about which athletes should be directly compensated, or how that process should happen, or how to best protect student opportunities during such a transition. I honestly have some real concerns about what that future will look like as well.

But I am convinced that system will at least be more honest than the one we have right now. Reporters, college administrators, coaches, and business owners operating in this world should all strive towards honesty. The status quo pushes honest folks to lie in order to maintain eligibility.

Paying athletes doesn’t mean that the educational component of college sports should be ignored

I may be butchering the exact quote here, but I distinctly remember hearing Mark Emmert, in one of his last public addresses as the president of the NCAA, call college athletics one of the best “laboratories for human development.”

It’s fashionable to laugh at everything that man said (and not without reason), but I actually think he’s right.

Done correctly, there are few environments in American society as democratizing as a locker room, one that forces people of different races, different political affiliations, religious traditions, backgrounds and more, to work together towards a common goal. Done correctly, college athletics builds lifelong relationships, discipline, perseverance, and many other values that our society cherishes and values. It trains students for careers, teaches them to overcome obstacles, bond with people very different from themselves, and think outside of themselves. That’s part of what college is for!

That baby does not have to be thrown out with the bathwater of college athletics reform, even reform towards a more professionalized model. It’s a story that those who love college sports, work in college sports, or are around college sports, should not be afraid to tell.

You can see how conference realignment that inches toward national consolidation runs counter to these principles. A system that creates environments that undermine athlete academic achievement, enables hazing, institutionalizes recruiting dishonesty, and alienates their strongest supporters, is a system that runs counter to these ideals.

Next year is going to look very, very different from this year. There’s not much time to build a better college sports world, one with more of a ‘soul.’ If we’re going to get there, I hope that those in leadership can talk more about what they are for, and not just what they don’t like about the status quo.

If you enjoy Extra Points, you can earn rewards by sharing the newsletter with your friends, coworkers, colleagues, and Twitter followers. Rewards include secret bonus newsletters, free premium subscriptions, a Zoom call with me, Homefield Apparel shirts, and more:

If you’d like to buy ads on Extra Points OR in ADS3000, good news! They’re affordable, and we have openings this season. Drop me a line at [email protected]. If you have news tips, I’m at [email protected]. Otherwise, I’m at [email protected], @MattBrownEP on Twitter, @ExtraPointsMB on Instagram, and @MattBrown on Bluesky

Join the conversation

or to participate.