Opinion | Columns

Just an extracurricular pursuit

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.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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alumnus posted on

Some thoughts - Columbia's Ivy League status is because of its athletic affiliation with seven other schools. Football at Columbia predates the Morningside Heights campus, the Core Curriculum and Barnard College. Surely any applicant to the institution would know these facts before submitting an application for admission.

Some questions for the author to consider: Would you have applied to Columbia if it wasn't an "Ivy League" school? Why aren't you at Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore or Vassar if you prefer the extracurricular model as offered at D3 schools? Why is it ok for Harvard, Yale and Princeton to support sports in the same way that Columbia does, but not Columbia?

What a poor argument. Too bad Logic and Rhetoric doesn't exist anymore.

Current Student posted on

Believe it or not, there aren't that many people applying to or attending Columbia who care that much at all about football, whether or not they are aware of the fact that the term "Ivy League" came about as the result of an athletic affiliation.

I'm sure that Willson has his own reasons for having attended Columbia, as opposed to schools like Amherst, Williams, or Swathmore. It's bizarre, however, that you think such a choice would hinge on a school's emphasis on varsity athletics, and not on the strength of his chosen academic program or the amount of financial aid offered at Columbia, factors which exert a much larger impact on a student's life and career than a football team he is not even on.

Finally, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton can look after themselves. This article makes no reference to these schools, and it does not follow that Willson agrees with (or is even aware of) how those programs are handled.

Seriously, what a poor response to a decent article that leaves plenty of room for healthy debate. Too bad some people's educations don't stick.

Rich Forzani 66C posted on

Henry poses a legitimate and serious argument.
That there is a vast disparity concerning funding is inarguable.

Here is my respectful response;

This disparity exists to one degree or another in every school with varsity sports. It is a fact of life. It goes away only when varsity sports go away.

Given the contractual agreement we have with the Ivy League, it will never go away.

Therefore, our best expectation is that we get value/performance for money, which sadly has historically not been the case.

Contributions by former athletes and fans do have a substantial effect on CU's budget/endowment. It appears that involvement with sports either as a fan or participant creates a strong bond between alums and the U.

Non-competitive athletics must be supported, via major improvements to Dodge and other facilities.

Regardless of one's attitude towards sports, they are a traditional part of the Columbia history and mystique (for better or worse). They are part of our overall "package". If better handled, these 800 athletes could offer incredible leverage re further public recognition and respect for CU, far beyond the expense associated.
This would translate into more donations, job offers, applications, etc.

All of this above presupposes our continued academic excellence, which can never be compromised.

A firm and public commitment to athletic success, with a demand for accountability and acceptable performance equal to our academic performance, is the minimum expectation we should have of the administration. It is the least we should accept.

Anonymous posted on

I'm not a sports fanatic, but how could anyone take issue or not respect this comment? It is balanced and logical. I see nothing arguable here. Just sayin'.

Anonymous posted on

Yeah, this article is pointless shit-stirring that does not at all account for the realities of how American colleges. As the above commenter notes, if you don't want to be subject to this "inequality," go to a D3 school. There are lots of them, and many provide a liberal arts education just as rigorous as Columbia's. But you probably chose your education through lust for the fancy name on the diploma instead of consideration of its values and priorities, didn't you? Your loss, man. Quit whining.

Non-athlete "Normal" posted on

It's mind-boggling to me how you can forget to finish sentences in your writing and then lecture Henry Willson about Columbia's 'values and priorities.'

Look man, there's ways to defend the vastly unequal amount of funding varsity athletic gets compared to extracurricular pursuits that are clearly more beloved by the Columbia community at large (just look at attendance), but dismissing Henry's article as 'shit-stirring' or 'whining,' or refusing to acknowledge that that inequality even exists just betrays the fact you're a chode that doesn't know what he's talking about.

CC 14 posted on

"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."

Wow. Awesome. Thanks for the intelligent article.