'Go Big or Go Home': University Commitment to Intercollegiate Athletics in the Neoliberal Era.

AuthorBrooks, Scott N.

HOW CAN A LARGE PUBLIC UNIVERSITYJUSTIFY BALLOONING ATHLETIC budgets and expenditures in the midst of tightening purse strings for academics? This study examines the cultural, institutional, and social conditions of big-time athletics at the University of Missouri. Most schools enter and invest in Division I athletics (the highest competition level) as a business decision: the perceived benefits of investing in football and sports generally make the school more profitable if their teams win. Missouri (affectionately called Mizzou) moved from one athletic conference to another, escalating its commitment to elite intercollegiate athletics and taking a high stakes gamble that potential revenues and benefits would outpace the rise in operating costs. In the media, there were stories about the economic rationale as well as doubt about Mizzou's decision. There were also questions of fit: could Missouri field competitive teams in America's fiercest conference, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), and could Missouri gain an additional swell of financial support from boosters and athletic revenues to make the necessary and immediate capital investments the conference demanded? Mizzou has done well in answering these two questions. Its football team has played for two conference championships in its first four years as a member of the SEC and it has already completed one major renovation of its stadium. However, what Mizzou has learned is that there are hidden costs to operating in this era of global media and neoliberalism. In November 2015, Mizzou made international news because 30 Black football players refused to play if the university's governing board did not take swift action to remove administrators deemed hostile to Black students. The university continues to pay a toll for its newly gained negative reputation. However, Missouri is not an exception; it is one of many universities with big-time athletics that have suffered losses to its public image and brand due to controversies in athletics departments. These universities have only one response, regardless of the depths of their fall: to continue their line of action, reaffirm their commitment to athletics, and invest in more growth.

A Neoliberal Commitment to Athletics

Allen Guttman (1978) considered what makes sports modern: "The emergence of modern sports represents neither the triumph of capitalism nor the rise of Protestantism but rather the slow development of an empirical, experimental, mathematical Weltanschauung"(Guttmann 1978,85). Guttmann identified and described seven characteristics of modern sports: secularism, equality, rationalism, bureaucracy, specialization, quantification, and record keeping. LaFeber (2002) added that the global economy of sports has been motored by technology (used in media to transmit ideas near and far), soft culture, and the rise of multinational corporations. And, we agree that media, as a mechanism for transporting soft culture to a global market, and as a set of multinational corporations and potential business partners, are critical to intercollegiate athletics. We also add commodification and talent recruitment as the main drivers of college athletics.

Universities have been escalating their commitment to athletics, seeing it as a stimulant to growth, tuition rates, and prestige. However, collegiate sports are not profitable, and only a small percentage of Division I athletic programs operate in the black. And profitability only occurs when a school is able to sell football (both the team and athletes) as a commodity in the open market to fans, boosters, and corporate partners. Kelly and Dixon (2011) argue that the addition of a football team is a new strategy for numerous colleges in their quests to become so-called real universities and to compete in the free market of education. Howard Becker writes that this kind of commitment has three parts: "(1) prior actions of the person staking some originally extraneous interest on his following a consistent line of activity; (2) a recognition by him of the involvement of this originally extraneous interest in his present activity; and (3) the resulting consistent line of activity"(Becker 1960,36). Becker calls the extraneous interest that influences prior actions and determines the direction of a consistent line of activity a side bet. It marks the priority and ultimate pivot for decisions. But the side bet is that athletics will increase a school's public profile.

The first objective of this study is to illustrate how intercollegiate athletics is a key part of education's neoliberal movement primarily because of media, the marketability of sports, and reliance on amateur athlete labor. There is no single definition of neoliberalism, as the policies, mechanisms, and actors change with varied competing interests. Harvey (2005) suggests that neoliberalism is a movement started by class elites to consolidate institutional power in the hands of "the CEOs, the key operators on corporate boards, and the leaders in the financial, legal, and technical apparatuses that surround this inner sanctum of capitalist activity" (2005, 33). In education, neoliberalism is useful as a descriptor for the intentional, significant, and commingled practices adopted by universities since the mid to late 1960s when large regional universities began to compete for students nationally and use their global prestige to open free enterprise in the service of corporate and university profits. Academics must adapt to new levels of fiscal responsibility as well as entrepreneurial planning and activity. Under neoliberal rule, departments are treated as individual business units, no longer hidden in colleges. They are asked to project and show their economic value to the university (often in terms of specific types of publishing and external grant awards), and administrations shrink budgets, offer less allocations, fail to replace losses of full-time lines when faculty retire, and threaten to eliminate support for faculty research if departments cannot sustain themselves. This fragments academic areas, increases competition and "singing for one's supper," and lowers morale. This has been very difficult, especially for the social sciences and humanities, which have come under fire for being soft sciences with miniscule federal grants and funding in comparison to STEM.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a significant difference in the response by athletics to the neoliberal agenda in higher education--academic departments continue to be run by academics but athletic departments have been operating as businesses for decades and are headed more and more by business leaders. The adoption of a sport for growth model reflects three pillars of neoliberalism, prioritized by universities with big-time athletics: quantification, commodification, and market principles. There are common practices that accompany the new model: increasing the size and staff of athletic departments, particularly in the areas of business support, athlete performance, and fundraising and development personnel; proliferating corporate-athletic department partnerships; focusing on the commercialization of athletics and the commodification of student athletes; marketing alternate uses of athletic venues and services; and decreasing athletic department dependence on the main campus. Even the governance of athletics has transitioned from operating under and as supplementary to the academic enterprise to being independent; the most profitable athletic departments manage their own budgets, operate with a surplus, and a few have even acted as benefactors, giving aid to campuses to mitigate shortfalls on the academic balance sheet. In addition, alumni and other community business members are asked to serve on social and supervisory boards.

A second but no less important objective is to understand how neoliberalism effectively erodes the quality of student athlete experiences and exacerbates social inequities. The new business model has usurped sports' former role of enhancing student experiences and campus fife (as a healthy form of entertainment for students, alumni, and followers). We offer a glimpse at how the commitment to big-time collegiate sports has led to social isolation and greater exploitation of Black male football players. The impact of social media and the authority and access given to previously marginalized voices cannot be overstated. Sports make front page news and have the capacity to bring immediate and immeasurable public exposure and opportunity as well as shame. Still, robust institutions are built to withstand threats from all sides, even from within. Our analysis is based on media stories and public information covering the economics and social problems of the University of Missouri's athletic department, qualitative and ethnographic data on Missouri's campus gathered over four years by one of the authors, and the literature on the quality of Black student athlete experiences. All of the authors have been a part of the Mizzou community for at least two years and have taught athletes in courses. In addition, one author worked with athletics and carried out independent studies of Mizzou Black student social life and Black student athlete dating.

We continue with a headline that tells of the historic and fantastic details of a recent athletic sponsorship deal. This will highlight the interest convergence of corporations and universities, the commodification of student athletes and university branding, and the revenue potential of elite intercollegiate departments. The normalization of free market principles sets the stage for continuous commodification and monetization of human goods and a belief in a growth model. What we see is mass spending for growth and unceasing talent recruitment. Ingenuity is essential to gaining an edge, staying competitive, and funding the collegiate arms race.

The Commitment to...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT