Sports Fans Are Not A University's Constituents

Central Cass grad Ellery Bresnahan will graduate from UND next year and end his baseball career with the school discontinuing the baseball program due to budget cuts. Photo via UND Athletics

Last week Grand Forks Herald sports reporter Brad Schlossman threw some shade at University of North Dakota President Ed Schafer over his handling of cuts to the school’s athletic programs.

“The UND President’s Office botched the cutting of the baseball team, resulting in weeks of controversy and negative headlines,” he wrote.

UND had a budget shortfall created by the mismanagement of Schafer’s predecessor, compounded by shortfalls bleeding over from the statewide budget, and Schafer has made it clear that sports programs are a sacred cow he’s willing to slaughter to make ends meet.

Schlossman went on in his column to praise the athletic department for finding room in their diminished budgets for a couple of popular sports announcers. He contrasted the athletic program’s handling of the sports announcers with Schafer’s handling of cuts to the athletic department.

“With this move, the UND athletic department showed it cares about the opinions of its constituents,” he wrote.

Setting aside the larger debate over program cuts at UND, and Schafer’s handling of them specifically, I’d like to take issue with Schlossman’s contention that sports fans are “constituents” of UND (or any public university, for that matter).

That sort of thinking is at root of much of the problems in higher education.

To call sports fans the “constituents” of a public university is to imply that the sports programs the university offers are some sort of a public service. This is ridiculous.

Sports programs are not why our public university exist. It’s not why they were founded. It’s not why taxpayers subsidize them with state and federal dollars. The mission of public universities is education. The constituents of a public university are the students, first and foremost, and the taxpayers second. And the service provided is not hockey or football or any other sport.

It might be easy to overlook this if sports programs were a benefit to public universities, financially, but they’re not. I’ve pointed this out numerous times before, but sports at UND (as well as North Dakota State in Fargo) cost taxpayers and students millions of dollars each year because they do not produce enough revenue to pay their own bills.

This is fiscal reality at nearly ever public university in the country. The sports programs, as popular as they often are, must be subsidized in the form of student fees and general university dollars in order to stay afloat.

Back to Schlossman’s “constituents” argument, what he’s arguing for is not only university athletics as a sort of public service, but one to be provided to the public at the expense of higher cost of attendance for students and a higher cost of education institutions for taxpayers.

At a time when the cost of higher education, and student loan debate, are serious problems.

Schlossman is a sports reporter by trade (and a gifted one at that), so might be excused from missing how the beat he covers fits into the larger political battle over higher education. But we need to stop ignoring the cost of collegiate athletics to the public, particularly students.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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