CCSC president Daphne Chen, in a rightly praised recent op-ed in these pages, expressed disappointment that University President Lee Bollinger’s first contribution to a student publication had been occasioned by criticism of Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy, rather than by many past incidents of more profound importance to the undergraduate community. This disparity in messaging, I would argue, is but a minor correlate of the grossly unequal share of University resources enjoyed by varsity athletics compared to all other forms of extracurricular activity.
The basic premise of my analysis is that varsity athletics should be evaluated no differently from any other extracurricular activity valued by a particular portion of the student body. Varsity athletic participation has many benefits—enhanced physical fitness, membership in a close-knit community, experience working in a team environment, etc.—but it certainly does not have a monopoly on these benefits, as a cursory examination of the myriad other extracurricular opportunities available to Columbia students can attest. There is a temptation to suggest that, by “representing” the University on the field, Columbia’s teams derive some more general status as avatars of the entire community, with corresponding special claims on resources. This sort of thinking about college athletics is widespread, but I do not see how it can withstand serious scrutiny.
Setting aside any special a priori status for varsity athletics, the financial inequality is so stark as to appear impossible to justify. The University is required to report basic financial data on its varsity athletic programs under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. In the 2012-13 reporting year, Columbia spent over $22 million on its varsity teams, which amounts to over $27,000 per varsity athlete. Without a more detailed breakdown of expenditures, one cannot be sure how many of these expenses also indirectly support things like the Dodge Fitness Center, which benefit non-athletes as well. Consider, though, that the game-day operating expenses alone of the football team add up to over $6,000 per participant. For the men’s basketball team, the corresponding figure is over $13,000 per participant, almost certainly more than the entire budget allocations of the vast majority of student groups.
In comparison, virtually all other extracurricular activities are funded by revenue from the student activities fee, which in 2012-13 was $216 per student. Thus the University would appear to be devoting 125 times the resources per student to supporting the chosen extracurricular pursuits of varsity athletes that it devotes to supporting those of the average student. Of course, there are inequalities in how the activities fees is distributed among various groups as well. Some activities are inherently more costly than others, and some level of numerical inequality is reasonable. However, two things ought to be kept in mind. One, the activities fees are allocated to groups, not by administrative fiat, but via the student councils and governing boards, bodies that are designed to be representative of the student population. And two, even if groups benefiting only 802 students (i.e., the number of varsity athletes) were somehow to monopolize all of the activities fee funding, they could only claim $1,600 per student.
One might object that spending on varsity teams not only benefits participating athletes but also the larger community of spectators. This argument is unpersuasive, however, inso far as overall student interest in attending athletic events is widely acknowledged to be tepid at best, and many other extracurricular groups organize events—such as performances and speaker appearances—that draw large numbers of non-member spectators. Moreover, total spending on varsity teams amounts to over $2,500 per undergraduate, which would imply that the spectator experience is worth over 11 times more to the average student than all other extracurricular activities combined.
In last spring’s Eye cover story “The Dodge Divide,” Murphy suggests that concerns about resource allocation are unfounded, because Columbia’s varsity teams pay for themselves via “Dodge memberships, student term fees, fundraising, and other sources.” It is true that Columbia’s Equity in Athletics data show a perfectly balanced budget. But Murphy’s own comments suggest that a characterization of the varsity teams as self-sufficient is misleading. At least some of the $390 portion of each CC and SEAS student life fee that goes to the athletics department, it would appear, is used as a subsidy for varsity programs, and not to support physical education resources accessible to the student body as a whole. And it is hard to know how much of the fundraising dollars Murphy mentions would have been recruited to support other University programs if not corralled by athletics first.
The most promising argument for maintaining the current funding inequality is that, even if varsity athletics at Columbia require some subsidization for their operating expenses, they are cherished by wealthy alumni donors, who would not support various non-athletic University activities if varsity programs were abolished or curtailed. I have no idea how the plausibility of this counterfactual could be evaluated given publicly available data. It may be true that current spending on athletics is justified as an investment in donor development. It is not implausible, though, that inequality can be socially corrosive even when it leaves everyone materially better off. Perhaps some of non-athletes’ purported lack of solidarity with their varsity peers arises from perceptions of the inequality in funding. At the least, the administration’s current reluctance either to acknowledge openly that its athletic programs are more about fundraising than student enrichment, or otherwise to offer a rigorous defense of the funding disparity, leaves observers with a choice between cynical guesswork and the dispiriting impression that the University simply values the chosen extracurricular pursuits of some students staggeringly more than those of others.
Henry Willson is a Columbia College senior majoring in philosophy. He is secretary general of CMUNNY 8 and a former photo editor for Spectator. Willful Meandering runs alternate Tuesdays.
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