Race Equity Ed Blog

Winning at the Expense of Equity in College Sports

By Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D.
posted December 15, 2014

Last week, the University of Florida agreed to pay Jim McElwain $3.5 million annually over a six-year contract to coach its football team. McElwain still had time left on his contract at Colorado State University. But Florida wanted him badly – they believed he could help them win again (the Gators won national championships in 2006 and 2008; this season they were 6-5). In addition to paying him more money than its president, the University also agreed to pay Colorado State $3 million over six years to buy McElwain out of his contract. As if that isn’t enough, UF will also pay Will Muschamp, the head football coach it just fired, approximately $6 million for the years that remain on his contract with the institution. In my view, this level of spending exacerbates longstanding equity issues in big-time college sports. I address four here that are reflected in responses to this recent What’s AHEAD Poll from the Penn Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy. 

First, 70% of respondents agree that athletics are an important component of higher education. Clearly, UF administrators and others elsewhere who pay coaches such enormous sums of money also think so. Between now and the end of McElwain’s contract, this public university will spend $24 million on one football coach (plus $6 million to get rid of Muschamp). Wouldn’t that money be better spent on expanding college opportunity for the millions of Floridians who deserve access to the University, but cannot afford it?

Second, respondents rank the exploitation of student-athletes as the second most vexing issue confronting intercollegiate athletics. As two Penn GSE Ph.D. students and I show in our 2013 report, Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports, certain players are exploited more severely than are their teammates. This is evidenced through Black men’s overrepresentation on revenue-generating sports teams and underrepresentation in the overall student body, as well as in alarming racial disparities in six-year graduation rates. 

Third, respondents rank benefits to student-athletes as the second top reason colleges and universities have athletics programs. Benefits are undeniably inequitable – institutions surely benefit far more than students, especially those Black undergraduate men who disproportionately help major sports programs, athletic conferences, and the NCAA earn billions of dollars each year.

Finally, recent data from the American Association of University Women show widespread sex gaps in compensation. Many undergraduate women, as well as their coaches, fans, and administrators who oversee their sports, would likely agree with me that gender inequities of varying sorts are far more troublesome than most people realize.

As is the case at Florida, several big-time sports programs are willing to invest in winning. In my forthcoming book, Scandals in College Sports, several expert scholars and I furnish numerous compelling examples of ethical, policy, and legal violations, most of which were motivated by a desire to win. It’s clear to me that neither integrity nor equity is as important as winning at many institutions.

Dr. Shaun Harper is former Executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.