There is valid controversy about spending on college athletics. There are unresolved problems with the monetization of big sports. Those issues aside, college athletics are entwined on campuses in multiple, positive ways.
In the college application process, getting high schoolers to be aware of a school can start with sports. Jim Rawlins is The University of Oregon's Director of Admissions:
Rawlins: “Football in particular, and I then would assume basketball in there somewhere, does tend to help a lot with people having heard of us versus not having heard of us. And especially the farther away from Oregon you get, it's not uncommon at all for us to encounter students that say 'I loved the Ducks ever since I was 7 years old.'”
Rawlins notes the friendly, cartoon-like mascot doesn't hurt.
At Lane Community College, home of the Titans, they're trying a sports and student numbers experiment.
Sheley: “We have an administration over there that is looking for new ways to bring students on campus. Enrollment is dipping.”
Greg Sheley, LCC's athletics director, says they added men's soccer and women's volleyball this year to take a stab at a solution:
Sheley “Depending upon the type of surveys that you look at, anywhere from .5 to 1.2 students come with each student athlete that you bring on campus.”
It's too soon to tell if the added sports are doing their job, but Lane student George Prigmore IV likes the idea:
Prigmore: “I know a lot of other community colleges were adding those sports as well. And so they were trying to keep up with the times, and then [it] also attracted more students. I think it was definitely a great idea for them to add those two sports.”
Across Eugene at Northwest Christian University, nearly half the undergrads play a competitive sport. Athletic Director Corey Anderson says media coverage of the Beacons' achievements, like last year's national-title winning women's cross country team, lifts enrollment numbers:
Anderson: “People see success as a place they want to be. So it may not be a cross country runner, but because of that success of that program, that has opened up some doors, some windows, just for people to hear the NCU name, to see the NCU name and all of a sudden they inquire.”
U of O's Rawlins says the publicity from Duck sports isn't a recruiting focus, but there's no reason to avoid the national recognition:
Rawlins: “We sometimes think that we don't want students to pick us just for the athletics because that's a lousy way to choose a college. But on the other hand, if that's a problem, I think it's a problem most other universities wish they had.”
Rawlins says a poor showing in football isn't likely to lower their profile. He says once a team has made it to the spotlight, the benefit doesn't go away.
Once students arrive, attending sporting events fosters team spirit and can cement campus connections. Oliver Weiss is a U of O business major:
Weiss: “It creates kind of like a bond, almost in a way, because we can all come together to like support different teams, if it's football, basketball, volleyball.”
Kayla Nague is a UCLA freshman visiting Eugene. She says college converted her into a sports fan:
Nague: “I never really enjoyed soccer games before, but like it was really fun. And then when the crowd gets wild, everyone stands up when you know a goal's going to be made.”
NCU's Anderson believes sports makes for solid loyalties, before and after graduation:
Anderson: “Athletics definitely builds in that fond memory of college. And so I think that oftentimes our student athletes maybe are stronger alumni.”
And, hopefully, regular donors.
Anderson: “As an alum, you're not into giving until 15-20 years down the road. So we don't have that many of that age, but we definitely engage them, through our alumni association.”
Surely many tailgaters in parking lots across the country give money to their alma maters.
Alumni and the community at large enjoy watching college sports, with the attendant bands, cheerleaders and hype. Besides providing the entertainment, most athletes make an effort to serve their community in other ways. Resa Lovelace is Director of Student Athlete Development at U of O. She heads an organization called O Heroes:
Lovelace: “We average about 4,000 hours of service a year and so, that's about 10 hours of service per student athlete. Again, we have some do none and some who do a lot, but last year we had about 71% of our student athletes do at least one event.”
O Heroes holds regular workshops through Kidsports and elementary schools, as well as working with senior citizens and food banks. Students aren't required to help, but do so because they want to.
Athletics teaches valuable life skills. NCU's Anderson says his coaches like to emphasize learning through adversity:
Anderson: “Athletics is a microcosm of life. There's good days, there's bad days, there's wins, there's losses. And so hopefully kids are able to take the values of athletics and again apply them to life.”
He says their student athletes have higher GPA's than non-athletes, because they have to be efficient with their time.
Lovelace says some companies come to career fairs asking specifically for student athletes:
Lovelace: “I know a lot of jobs now are teams, and so people need to learn how to work and operate in a team. And so if you've been a student athlete for most of your life, you've been on a team and so you have those skills that can now be moved into a job.”
Lovelace says, aside from the very few athletes who go on to play professionally, about half go to grad school, and half find jobs.
There are still open issues about spending among sports and across genders, but college athletes raise spirits, forge loyalties, and return valuable dividends to their schools and their communities.