Okay, this game was not a strong argument for the student-athlete model. Photographer: John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
Okay, this game was not a strong argument for the student-athlete model. Photographer: John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

For years, we have been hearing about the ever-escalating arms race among Division I sports programs. But now we are being told that Division II and III schools have also ramped up their spending on sports -- while spending on instruction, research and public service has either declined or remained flat.

The findings come courtesy of a new study from the American Association of University professors that accuses colleges and universities of losing sight of their academic mission. An “irrational exuberance” for athletics is partly -- even largely -- to blame. “The spending priority accorded to competitive athletics too easily diverts the focus of our institutions from teaching and learning to scandal and excess,” the report states.

You can download the entire report from the AAUP’s home page, but before you get yourself too worked up, there are a few additional facts to consider, beginning with its source. Is it really surprising that an association of university professors believe too much money is going toward sports -- and too little money is going toward, you know, university professors? For the record, the average salary for a tenured professor at a doctoral-level university is $127,000 (up 2.2 percent last year). If you exclude medical-related jobs, by some measures only chief executives and petroleum engineers earn more.

Needless to say, it’s an over-simplification to suggest sports are always a good investment for a college or university, but why are we always so quick to assume they aren’t -- that schools have been possessed by a sports demon that forces them to throw good money after bad? Mainly because the NCAA has done a very good job of convincing us that most Division I schools lose money on sports. In fact, as the economist Dan Rascher laid out in a filing in the O’Bannon v NCAA lawsuit, this is mostly just a matter of accounting. (One virtually universal example of these accounting tricks: Listing the sale of branded school merchandise as university bookstore profits, unrelated to the sports that drive the purchases.)

The flawed logic proceeds from there: If most Division I schools lose money on sports, then Division II and III schools must be even worse off. After all, they don’t even have big stadiums to fill, never mind multi-million dollar TV contracts. They must really be making a bad economic decision when they decide to build a new field house or weight room. But that’s the wrong way to look at sports spending.

The right way to look at it is, spending money on sports is no different from spending it on a new dorm or student center or rock-climbing wall. It is all part of attracting paying customers -- customers who are free to judge schools by whatever standards they choose. Which is another way of saying that if Division II and III schools believed they’d be better off spending less money on sports programs, they’d be spending less money on sports programs.

The strategy might even be working. The NCAA reports some 21 percent of all Division III students are also athletes. It turns out that a great way to attract a paying student is to offer him or her a chance to also play intercollegiate sports.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Mahler at mahlerjonathan@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.