Widgets Magazine


The price of athletics at Stanford

“It will cost Stanford Athletics almost $100 million to put Cardinal teams in competition this year.” So reads Stanford’s Student-Athlete Handbook, which goes on to explain that only “approximately one third comes from ticket sales and television rights revenue” – the net annual cost is thus around $67 million. Is this money well spent?

The question I want to focus on is not whether the athletics department spends its allocated budget efficiently, but rather whether the university should be giving athletics such a large budget at all. To put things in perspective, Stanford will spend $256 million this academic year on financial aid. If we reallocated the university’s net spending on athletics into financial aid, we could raise Stanford’s aid generosity by 25 percent. By spending so much on athletics, Stanford is passing up other opportunities.

Stanford’s commitment to athletics is reflected not just in its budget, but also in the composition of its student body. Out of its 7,000 undergraduates, about 900 are student-athletes and there are 300 athletic scholarships divided amongst this student-athlete population. But here again there is a tradeoff. For one, athletics is a serious time commitment.  The NCAA limits playing season practice to 20 hours a week, which teams tend to use in full. This inevitably detracts from the student-athlete’s academic commitments. As Richard Sherman put it at a recent press conference: “Show me how you’re going to get all your work done when after you get out at 7:30 or so, you’ve got a test the next day, you’re dead tired from practice and you still have to study just as hard as everybody else.” The more we emphasize athletics, the less time students have to spend on academics.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this trade-off is admissions standards for athletes. Many of my friends at Stanford with whom I have discussed athletic admissions are under the impression that academic standards for admission are essentially the same for athletes and non-athletes, even in high revenue sports like football. This impression is pushed by the athletics department. When Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter gave a presentation at Stanford claiming that universities were making academic concessions, including relaxed admissions standards, in order to have successful athletic programs, Stanford’s senior associate athletic director responded: “I beg to differ on that. We haven’t lowered our academic standards.” Football coach David Shaw has repeated this mantra: Responding to critics claiming that Stanford had relaxed its academic standards to achieve football success, he claimed, “We have the same academic standards.”

But this is not actually true. Although we do not have comprehensive statistics comparing athletic admits to regular admits, some data does exist. Looking at a group of 10 elite colleges and using SAT scores (on the 1600 point scale) as a proxy for academic ability, Princeton researchers found that being a recruited athlete gave an admissions boost equivalent to scoring 200 points higher on the SAT. We can also look at high school scouting reports for football players. Looking at the Stanford recruitment class of 2009 (this year was quite typical in terms of test scores), the median football player who reported scores got an 1800 out of 2400 on the SAT and 26 on the ACT. Based on university statistics, this puts the football median comfortably in the bottom quartile and likely somewhere in the bottom 10 percent in terms of test scores. Stanford football players are quite smart, but the data suggests they place near the bottom of Stanford’s admits.

There are, of course, various other perspectives and counterarguments. For example, some have argued that beyond providing physical conditioning, athletics teaches academic skills and attributes such as teamwork, endurance, leadership and time management. These skills may well be taught by athletics, but they are also taught by numerous other curricular and extracurricular activities. The difference between, say, a recruited wrestler and a high school debate team captain is that Stanford provides substantial additional resources and relaxed admissions standards for the former, even when the latter has done the more academically-oriented of the two activities. Although we could continue to debate the finer points, the evidence of a trade-off between athletics and academics appears, to me, overwhelming.

This is not an attack on athletes, nor is it a suggestion that all athletes are underqualified. In fact, my inspiration for this op-ed came from an article by John Urschel, who, aside from being an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, is also a published mathematician. Urschel suggests that football players, including those at Stanford, are letting their sport take precedence over their education.

Urschel’s argument is one part of my broader concern. At Stanford, there is a serious tradeoff between athletics and academics: a tradeoff that is under-recognized and goes largely undiscussed. Athletics is not mentioned as part of Stanford’s purpose in the Founding Grant, nor in the mission statements of any of the seven schools. Yet we are making substantial sacrifices for athletics, in terms of financial resources and spots in each entering class. I believe the fundamental question is how much we, as a university, value athletics for its own sake. If our actions are out of line with our values, then we need to change.

It’s time for us to consider whether Stanford’s policies of heavy investment in athletic programs and recruitment are really in line with the university’s mission. Regardless of what we decide to do, we as a university should have a frank discussion about how much we are willing to sacrifice academics for athletic success.

Jeremy Majerovitz ’15

Contact Jeremy Majerovitz at jmajic ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • Crescatscientiartistathletica

    I went to a school that shunned athletics while I was there, you know the one “where fun goes to die”. Though academically great, it was a monoversity and not a university. Most, or at least the people that I met, though brilliant, were somewhat introverted and not a part of the whole but retracted from it. I do not have memories of a “big game” only the remembrance of academic toil.
    You, on the contrary, have had the opportunity to be at a university where you not only can be around those who have cultivated great minds but also those who have cultivated great bodies as well as a great mind-no mean feat. Though they might not get the same grades, they bring a diversity that makes for a university and not a monoversity experience. To be around great musicians, great artists, great golfers, great tennis players and yes, great football pleayers, enhances your life as well as theirs. Because they they bring a different point of view which is what makes for a great university.
    So, if you wnat to transfer to a purely “life of the mind” academic monastery,go ahead, there is still time. While you are at it, buy a cilicium and wear it while you are there.

  • Kevin Blue

    There are many topics worthy of discussion related to the current national climate of intercollegiate athletics and how they impact Stanford’s participation.

    However, your suggestion that Stanford Athletics creates a cost of $67M to the University is factually incorrect, and grossly so. There are other significant sources of revenue – such as fundraising – that are generated by Stanford Athletics’ and used to support its operations.

    Kevin Blue, ’05
    Sr. Associate Athletics Director

  • 15

    Quit attacking a strawman. This is not about having athletics vs. not having athletics. It is about the disproportionate allocation of resources to athletics, in terms of money and admission slots. For example, the AARC provides academic tutoring to exclusive student-athletes, a resource that is not available to the rest of the undergraduate population.

  • Dad

    Your biased prospective does not do this important topic justice. As an example, you compare football SAT with the Stanford’s overall statistics. Yet, you were speaking about athletics as a whole but elected to compare these stats with only one team. This same football team does not cost the university funding.

    I recommend you take a look at another particular team such as women’s lightweight crew or squash whose admission stats on average exceed university norms. Additionally, as pointed out in the above comment, you exaggerated the amount of net university funds actually expended in athletics. In summary, this topic does have some merits for further discussion but biased sensationalist reporting is clearly unacceptable.

  • Anonymous

    You have two main points that I can find: 1) Athletics receives funding that could be better spent on academics, and 2) the lower academic standards set for student athletes reduces the quality of Stanford’s academics.

    To address your first point:

    The biggest weakness of the article is in the first paragraph which unfortunately sets the tone for the rest of the piece. As pointed out in other comments, you have made an outrageous assumption about the cost of athletics (discounting fundraising and merchandising). Also, an introductory economics class would introduce the concept of opportunity cost which is something that needs to be considered in the case of athletics. The value of a brand is dependent upon its exposure, so athletics should be considered a form of advertising.

    Despite your omissions, it is still possible that athletics costs Stanford a substantial amount of money; however without the data, it’s a little challenging for me as a reader to accept that.

    For your second point:

    There isn’t much to say on your second point because you offer little evidence. It might be challenging to acquire the sort of data you would need to assert you point, but that doesn’t mean you can find some convenient data about football that may or may not be representative of athletics as a whole.

    In general, I commend you for trying to bring attention to an issue that is important to you, but it would be worth it to spend some more time gathering facts to substantiate your argument.

  • skullbreathe

    Why not broaden the point if we’re talking lower academic standards to the acceptance of minorities with lower test scores from affirmative action? I support affirmative action but the editorial opens up a Pandora’s Box that I don’t think their prepared to handle…

  • Anon

    I totally agree. Might as well start cutting “less academic” humanities majors in favor of “more academic” engineering majors.

  • Anonymous

    This seems to imply that the value that athletics provides is insignificant compared to the cost. For the student-athletes themselves, they are able to represent their university in every game they play. Many of them will represent our school in Rio in 2016. It also brings value to the students that are non-athletes. Clearly if the students and alumni found no value in athletics the football, basketball and other games would be nearly empty, which is clearly not the case.

    Athletics gives students another way to do what they love and represent their university at the same time. I don’t think that its your place to decide the value of this. You say you don’t care how the money’s being spent but rather that it is. I suggest that you actually take a look at how the money is spent. If you see issues there, then address those up specifically.

    Regarding the academics point, other commenters have mentioned how many sports teams have better than average academics. Even if it was the case that admissions standards were lowered, maybe it would be because these students have other qualities and capabilities instilled in them through athletics that the university sees.

    Your point about sports taking away from academics while at Stanford is ridiculous. We shouldn’t ban something because students are choosing to use their time on it. That’s like saying that students are watching too much Netflix which is taking away from their studies, so we should block it on all university wifi.

    Are we really sacrificing something but admitting these athletes? Are you suggesting that we bring less value to the university than other students would and that we are wasting space by taking their spots? Because it certainly sounds like that.

    – Student Athlete with 2400 SAT, earning a 3.7 in an engineering major

  • anonymous

    I fully support Stanford defunding athletics, starting with football.

    -TDS, University of Notre Dame ’14

  • Candid One

    At a small, elite, private university, which is also more grad school than undergrad, AA for undergrad admissions is not a significant “Pandora’s Box”. At Stanford, grad students outnumber undergrads on campus, as they have for several decades. Grad students are more diverse than the undergrads. Grad students are admitted by decentralized processing, unlike the undergrads. Grad students rarely include active collegiate athletes. At the grad school level, Stanford is a science and engineering school, the GSB, GSE, SLS, and Med. School notwithstanding.

  • Candid One

    JM, you seem to model Stanford University as a public institution with funding predicaments imposed by state governments. Those athletic expenditures aren’t depriving other aspects of SU operation–they augment, enhance the rest of the institution. Those names on the various buildings around campus–regardless of the buildings’ purpose–are not the names of state legislators. Stanford attracts donors with multiple interests. Whether it’s science, engineering, music, performing arts, or sports, support for a well-rounded institutions of higher learning finds a bigger target at Stanford than at most other elite universities. Sports is as effective for public relations and community development as any other facet of the University’s operations. Since by world consensus, Stanford is an elite, national and world class university, how have its 20 consecutive years of winning the NACDA Director’s Cup for success in collegiate athletics detracted from its stature? Thou doth protest too much…so maybe you’re praising with faint damning?

  • Richard Roy

    ** they are

  • Sorta, but you’re wrong

    Saying that the AARC provides an unbalanced service isn’t really correct. First of all, that is just one of many functions the AARC carries–their primary concern is Student-Athlete eligibility.

    Yes they provide tutoring to Student-Athletes, but at no higher level than the CTL does for any and every undergraduate. The AARC tutorial has to gear slightly more toward helping catch Student-Athletes up on classes missed due to practice and/or competitions. They can also tailor the schedule around unavoidable Student-Athlete conflicts.

    But given that was just one example, I’m sure you’ve got countless other ones to show how being a Student-Athlete is having your hand held all the into and all the way through Stanford.

  • Student-Athlete

    Sometimes the only downside of being a Student-Athlete at Stanford is that we for the most part do not have the time craft lengthy, crushing replies to weak, unsubstantiated sensationalism such as this. We are seemingly too busy getting carried through this University by the Athletics Department.

    Thankfully Vihan Lakshman has written a wonderful piece, “Athletics at Stanford: Reevaluating the idea of diversity,” and saved all of us the effort.

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    Dear Mr Blue,
    Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to comment on this challenging article.
    I appreciate your evaluation of the costs of athletics at Stanford, however I think your comment would be stronger and more valued if you could give us the actual, factually accurate costs, calculated over a number of years, spanning several decades if possible.
    A display of costs relative to net income, if any, as well as other *tangible* benefits, would surely be helpful to the overall discussion.
    Perhaps a factual presentation would dispel misinformed speculation.
    ps – I also would be appreciative if, as Senior Associate Athletics Director, you’d change your name from the hateful-sounding “Blue”, to a more appropriate, soothing-sounding appellation like “Red”. or some version thereof.
    (A fan dating from the early 1950s and son of a pre-Med grad, ’38-’43.)

  • In the know

    Jeremy, your article doesn’t account for the second-order effects of a good athletic department (particularly a good football/basketball team)… and this happens at every school.

    When the football and/or basketball teams move into the “elite” spectrum, the # of applicants rises (Stanford’s has almost doubled since just 7 or 8 years ago… some of that can be attributed to increased financial aid packages, etc, but not entirely) donations skyrocket, and the school’s “brand” becomes significantly more valuable. That has led to millions and millions and millions of dollars for Stanford over the past few years alone

  • 15

    Precisely. If the fact that a 5-person office exists whose main purpose is ensuring “Student-Athlete eligibility” doesn’t strike you as a disproportionate allocation of resources, then I’m not sure what would.

  • RunInMyShoes

    A 5-person staff for almost 900 students is not a disproportionate allocation of resources… “Student-Athlete eligibility” is not a small matter. It wouldn’t make sense for Stanford to have student-athletes yet not provide trained/qualified personnel to deal with the compliance issues this segment of the student body faces. Staying on top of NCAA regulations requires significant time and knowledge. Why would anyone expect student-athletes to navigate NCAA regulations independently on top of everything else (academics, etc.) they have to do? It’s literally a job, ask the AARC and Compliance Department staffs plus the hundreds of other people with similar positions at universities all over the country. Perhaps, if you’ve never dealt with the NCAA the AARC just seems like some “perk,” but for those constantly facing potential compliance issues it’s essential.

  • 15

    Your point is well-taken, but the fact is if there weren’t 900 student-athletes, then we wouldn’t need a 5-person office to deal with this. I’m certainly not saying that athletes have “perks” in the way you seem to implying. However, among the various talents to be found in our student body, the issue boils down to if you believe athletic ability is sui generis in a way that demands reserved admissions slots, and the existence of bureaucratic structures to hold the entire enterprise together. Given that the university exists primarily as an academic entity, my answer to that is “no”. You are free, however, to disagree.

  • Anon4

    Let’s just call it how it is.

    Athletes lower the academic quality of of Stanford’s student body. Are there some athletes who are exceptions? Of course! But on average, athletes have lower SAT/GPA coming out of HS.

    Now whether this “cost” (having worse student body academically) is acceptable to have is another story. But let’s not all sit here and pretend that most athletes got in on academic merit.

    The same could be said (in general) for underrepresented minorities (URMs), legacies (perhaps to a lower extent here), and other “special” classes. Making it to Stanford as a non-legacy, non-URM, non-Athlete….now that is truly impressive.

  • RunInMyShoes

    Ahh well yes, I do disagree. I’ll save my argument for beyond this comments section, but basically I believe Stanford should have a varsity athletics program. While it is sensible to debate the issue of reserved admissions slots, the reality is even without such slots, students with extraordinary athletic capabilities would get admitted to Stanford. Stanford supports students with a range of talents (artistic, entrepreneurial, etc.). Why not give students with world-class athletic talent a program to express that? Being against aspects of how Stanford maintains its athletic program – I understand that. Calling for the removal of 900 students or the removal of the program which enables the expression of their talents – not so much.
    p.s. No intentions of implying student-athletes get perks. Just saying there is a valid reason student-athletes have the AARC and non-athlete students do not. Cool discussion!

  • Sucka

    You should definitely say this to the face a member of the football or wrestling team. They’d really appreciate it. Pretty sure they work a full time job here while they go to school. Everyone’s a hardo behind a keyboard.

  • Anonymous

    Contrary to what you might want to believe, Stanford holds athletes to different academic standards than even Princeton does. I know of multiple recruits who have been denied admission to Stanford– recruits who did not have poor grades or horrible test scores.

    Moreover, for some athletes, college is a stepping stone to a professional career. And who is to say these players do not value education. Just as attending Stanford is a stepping stone to becoming a doctor, Stanford can be a stepping stone to the NFL, NBA, or WNBA.

    Even if a professional career is not the end goal, athletics has importance to many at this school. That should not be undervalued.