The problem with college athletics

It’s out of control. It’s insane. Look at this story out of Texas:

The concept of the college football coaching buyout reached its historical apex Sunday, when news broke that Texas A&M would dismiss Jimbo Fisher amid his sixth season as head coach. That dismissal would figure to entail the school and its boosters paying Fisher the remainder of his contract, which infamously totals around $76 million.

$76 million. What’s worse, they’re paying one man $76 million to stop working so they can hire someone else for an equivalent salary…a single salary that could instead have paid for over 700 full professors in real academic disciplines to work. And this is one guy! Imagine how much money is getting thrown down the rathole of recruiting and bloated coaching staffs and taking the players out for steak dinners every night. This is madness. This is college football.

This Jimbo Fisher guy never deserved that kind of extravagant salary, and even had a winning 6:4 season so far. You know what happened here: some absurdly rich asshole donor started complaining that “his” team wasn’t winning enough, and decided to meddle, so he could pretend to take credit when some young kid throws a touchdown pass.

This is no way to run a university.

The students don’t even notice because they’re all distracted by these phony rivalries. All they know is that to defend their honor their football team has to defeat some other football team in Texas, or Nebraska, or whereever. No, kids, that doesn’t matter.


  1. Louis says

    I remember a hearing or two regarding pharma companies where the marketing budgets were compared to the R&D budgets…

    A similar “misplacement of priorities” (good phrase, Matt) was observable.

    What time is it okay to start drinking heavily? Asking for a me.


  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    $76 million. What’s worse, they’re paying one man $76 million to stop working so they can hire someone else for an equivalent salary…a single salary that could instead have paid for over 700 full professors in real academic disciplines to work.

    That $76 million value is not for one year, it is over the length of the contract, which I believe is 7 or 8 years. Considering it as a one year expense because they are paying off his contract seems like questionable accounting.

  3. wzrd1 says

    Actually, I agree and disagree with the policy.
    Hire and fire the guy, no problem, I disagree on salary.
    I have zero problems in firing you at that golden parachute level.
    Enjoy retirement.

    As for sports being anything beyond a distraction, there, we share a massive disagreement with manglement.
    Schools exist to educate, not wrangle against one another via combat sports.
    Superior combat is via research, with peer reviewed combat.
    Which, at the end of the day, is far, far superior.

  4. says

    I remember listening to a pretty interesting podcast about the history of how American colleges became athletic supporters. It was, go figure, a moral panic about how the youth of the time were going to grow up weak, indolent, alcoholic, and gay like British public schoolers. So, of course there had to be instruction in the manly arts such as sweating, breaking bones, and traumatic brain injury. The cast of characters has changed but you could easily drop Tommy Tuberville into the role of one of the coaches. Once there was money being made, the rest was done by the invisible hand of market capitalism. But it always made me wonder why an institution of higher learning would have a special program to train gladiators for the Circus Maximus.

  5. Paul K says

    And, boy, does it all start at a much younger age. I worked in public schools for decades, and much of what I did was to counteract the ‘lessons’ learned in sports: win at all costs; care only about your own team; belittle ‘losers’ of any kind; never show ‘weakness’, whatever you perceive it to be; do as your leader demands; be a demanding leader who expects people do do as they’re told; admire winners in sports and physical strength above other achievements; take as accepted that competition is good, healthy, and productive in all things. I could of course go on, and I know lots of these apply to much more than sports, but sports push all of this, and it makes conflict — which is what sports are made to be all about, though they don’t have to be — something always in the background. I ran after-school programs, and was on a school board. I saw a big part of my role being to offer and push alternatives to this kind of thinking. Difficult kids (and their parents) could have a real problem with my three fundamental rules: be safe, be fair, and be kind. Some of the worst issues came when we played sports, when bad habits just rose to the top. I often had to simply ban basketball and football for a while.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Matt G @1: Indeed. The sports-culture gap was striking when my family moved from England to Canada in 1968.

    At my school in England, there were certainly sports teams (soccer for sure, rugby and cricket maybe?). And there was a yearly athletics competition between the four houses. But the only people who knew when the next soccer game was were the players and the games master/coach.

    High school in Canada; everyone knew the football team cheer song (it’s still stuck in me head after 50 years), and football games had a crowd of spectators. Weird.

  7. chigau (違う) says

    One of the boys on my high school football team was told if he got one more concussion, he would die.
    He was 18 at the time.

  8. whheydt says

    When I was in college, the joke was that Cal (UC Berkeley) would have a great football team as soon as someone figured out how to put cleats on sandals. But, then…I was in the College of Engineering and engineering students didn’t generally have the time and energy to pay attention to sports. The engineering way to deal with it was what Cal Tech students did to the card stunts one year at the Rose Bowl.

  9. stuffin says

    Ahh, my high school Alma Mata cheer song was: Hey, Hey, Shout, Shout, We don’t Win, We Turn Out!

    Turn out being a local expression for riot.

    And the chorus was we are the fighting tigers.

  10. Kagehi says

    @8 cartomancer

    Ah, but this is capitalistic improvement – the circus doesn’t have to pay people to bake bread you see, so the people running it can keep even more of the money. It would be totally silly to waste that money on giving away bread, if you can make more money by just letting them starve while they watch the circus, and they are somehow equally enthralled.

  11. dodecapode says

    There’s a lot about US culture that perplexes me, but college sports might be one of the most perplexing things (and I say this as somebody coming from a culture this side of the pond that has plenty of its own perplexity).

    The idea that grown-ass adults above university age might give a shit about how a University (or secondary school) sports team does is absolutely mind-boggling. When I was at school and university the only people who cared how the sports teams did were the people on the teams, and maybe their parents or friends. I couldn’t name a single member or coach of my university’s sports teams from back when I was a student, let alone now…

    The additional idea that you might pay somebody a salary sufficient to fund an entire research group or degree programme just to coach one of those sports teams? Or that the university might own a stadium the size of some premier league football grounds to host their games? Mind-boggling :)

  12. HidariMak says

    The problem is that the salaries of the coaches is dictated by the popularity of the pastime, which is unfortunate considering the rules prohibiting what the athletes themselves can have. And as somebody who has never had any interest in watching sports, the boosters of sports have always resembled a Weird Al Yankovic song more than anything else to me.

  13. mordred says

    My university here in Germany had some sports facilities, but the groups using them were more like clubs you could be part of in your spare time, I think. Never really cared about that stuff.

    There was an official sports “dies” once a year (or semester?) where students could compete in different disciplines. Mainly each faculty created a team for the soccer tournament. The Comp Sci guys always had to work hard to get a full team together – and then got kicked out in the first match. Once with a spectacular 18:0.

  14. hillaryrettig1 says

    Paulk@7 – yes, it starts way early. also, it looks like you did good and valuable work.

    I don’t know about K12 sports, but another problem is that pro sports (and maybe college sports? I don’t know) has gotten super militarized, with all the constant ads for the military. (That the military funds, and that our tax dollars pay for.)

    The whole culture has gotten much more unthinkingly pro military during my lifetime.

  15. robro says

    $75 million for one coach is horrible but that’s a drop in the bucket if you consider how goes to the other coaches and trainers, the stadium, the equipment, the travel expenses, maintenance costs, sports scholarships, other perks for the A-Team, and on and on. I don’t care that colleges have sports, except the dangerously unhealthy one’s like American football, but that so much money goes into it. And keep in mind that Texas A&M isn’t even the “big” school in Texas. Wonder how much UT is spending?

    According to this 2018 Axios story, Inside the world of college sports financing, US colleges spent over $18 billion on sports programs. Those programs brought in $10 billion. $6.5 billion of the loss was covered by government and institutions, while $1.5 billion was covered by student fees…students who are drowning in debt because of the high cost of education.

  16. epawtows says

    Worth noting that people in the US who think it’s “manly” to paint themselves in their teams colors or wear outrageous clothing with their team/favorite athlete/etc name on it are among the worst at belittling people who put on costumes at fannish conventions.

  17. says

    PZ starts of with: The problem with college athletics It’s out of control. It’s insane.
    I reply: this entire focus of the powers that be in this society is insane. They deify sports and pop-culture inanity as the most important elements. The money wasted on ‘college’ and ‘professional’ sports could raise everyone in this pitiful country out of poverty and give them decent healthcare and safe drinking water. I am SOOO DISGUSTED with the prevalent values system, it makes me want to vomit. (am I over-reacting? Many of my friends say, no)

  18. says

    To put it in a more important perspective: all those Hundreds of Millions wasted on sports would likely allow everyone in this foolish country to get a FREE quality college education.

  19. Dave says

    I used to teach at Texas A&M (I left in 2019). My experience is that most students had little interest in the football team. Sure, if you asked, they would say they wanted the team to win, but they didn’t care to any depth. And when I did bring up the topic with students, most couldn’t tell me who the team played last week much less who won or who lost. Tickets were expensive and in limited supply. At the beginning of the season if you wanted to go to games you entered into a lottery, and you got to attend one, maybe two games, if you could afford it. To be fair, a sizeable minority really did care and take an interest, but it was a definitely a minority.

    Compare that to my undergrad experience at a small liberal arts college where tickets were free for students (i.e., included in our activities fee) with plenty of seats available. We went to most home games and did care who won—it wasn’t an existential question for us, but we did have an emotional stake in the outcome. We also knew the players. They lived with us in the dorms and fraternity houses. They ate in the dining hall. They went to classes with us. They weren’t all “kinesiology” majors living in athletic housing.

    In contrast, A&M’s football program is there mainly for alumni, to bring money to pay for the football program. But even there, it is of questionable value. Most of the money raised by football pays for the football program, including the coaches’ salaries. It’s not a question of spending the $76 million on football or academics, but rather spending less on football in order to pay the departing coach’s salary. I would guess that almost all of the money alumni give because of football and that comes in from the television rights goes to pay for football. If you eliminated the football program, you would lose those donations and the TV money, but the budget for the rest of the university would remain the same. The only substantial relationship between the A&M’s football program and the university is that the stadium is located on campus and the players attend classes.

  20. Jazzlet says

    I did know a few people on a couple of the sports teams at my university in the early 1980s in the UK, four or five of the dinghy (Lasers?) team, one I shared a flat with and one was a good friend and lab partner, I knew the other three through them. Then a couple of rugby players, one because he lived in the flat above us and we would have to call security on him when he did things like put his speakers face down on the floor playing something heavy at full volume in the middle of the night in an attempt to get the lass in the room below him to go up in her night clothes to remonstrate, and another because she was on my course. But I’ve no idea who any of the teams played or how they did, and the fact that the friends were on teams was only relevant when planning social activities together as you had to avoid practises and matches.

  21. hemidactylus says

    I used to watch college football because it was more exciting than the NFL. Now I don’t have cable I can’t really watch much unless it comes on a rabbit ear channel. I tried streaming ESPN+ briefly until I realized you still need to log in with a cable provider to watch college football games that mean anything. Yet another capitalist racket.

    Jimbo used to coach under Bobby Bowden then took over at FSU when the old man was put to pasture. He coached Infamous Jameis to a National Championship then several years later left for Texas A&M. I don’t know nor care what success Jimbo had in Texas. FSU is finally back in the higher rankings under a different coach. Can’t say the same for Texas A&M or Jimbo wouldn’t have been let go.

    Here’s Jimbo pissed at Bama’s Nick Saban a while back:

    These guys were feuding over stuff:


    Jameis was eventually replaced at Tampa Bay (NFL) by Tom Brady. He came off the bench for the New Orleans Saints yesterday to throw two of the most brilliant passes ever seen and then two bonehead interceptions, which pretty much sums up his pro career. He turned into a major extracurricular jackass at FSU under Jimbo. Hopefully he grew up off the field. He’s too haphazard on the field to go very far, though maybe he’ll become another Vinny Testaverde in a few years.

  22. Paul K says

    hillaryrettig1 @ 18: Thanks.

    I have been pretty anti-sports since I was a kid myself. I got bullied in school from as early as I can remember because I was usually the biggest kid in my class but not at all aggressive or confrontative. I was also an excellent student, so doubly cursed. it was during gym class when the worst bullying took place, instigated most extremely by the athletes trying to feel big. My first day in high school, I was eating lunch when a large man passed by me in the cafeteria, did a double take, and sputtered, ‘Why aren’t you on the football team?’ This seemed an odd question to be asked by an adult I’d never seen before, so I figured he must be the coach. I was 6′ 4″ (193 cm) by now, and weighed about 220 pounds (100kg). I said, ‘I don’t like football.’ He looked sad, but I’ll give him his due: he shrugged, sighed, and said, ‘Well, there’s not much I can say to that’, and walked on. One nice thing about having grown so large was that no one bullied me anymore.

    While my son was a student for the past four years at a branch of the University of Wisconsin, they built a new athletic center, built in no small part with funds from student fees that my son and all the other students paid. But only athletes on school teams were allowed to use the facility once it was built, and if I recall correctly, it was only athletes on certain specific teams. My son’s not into sports, either, but he does like to work out, and this rightly pissed him off. He worked in the school planetarium, which is scheduled to be demolished when a new science building is built without a planetarium. Priorities.