College sports, to most people, consist of basketball and football. It’s easy to see why that’s the case. They are the sports with the greatest number of spectators, the largest budgets, and they tend to get all the attention. They are more widely covered than any other sports and televised more often. Other sports are too often forgotten in their shadow.
But it’s important to note—as we cheer the US team competing in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang—that football and basketball are a small piece of the student-athlete puzzle. College sports and the support provided to student-athletes not playing football or basketball are the core of the US Olympic team.
Many of the recent US competitors were student-athletes sponsored and supported by their colleges. For example, in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, 439 out of the 558 members of the US team (79 percent) were or had been student-athletes. Of the 210 medalists, nearly 85 percent had competed collegiately. And though student-athlete participation is greater in the Summer Olympics, in the current Winter games, 92 out of 244 (37.7 percent) of the US team are or were student-athletes.
Too often the perception of college sports is limited to the highly commercialized sports of football and basketball, but the truth is that billions of dollars are also invested by our colleges into non-revenue sports. Most student-athletes do not play football or men’s and women’s basketball. In the 130 schools of the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, 57,000 out of the 77,000 student-athletes are not football or basketball players. Instead they play volleyball, softball, tennis, ice hockey and soccer; they run track, swim and ski.
For some schools, with scholarships, coaches, travel, and facilities, it can cost over $1 million to sponsor one of these non-revenue teams. Although basketball and football programs are often disparaged for their huge budgets, the other side of the ledger isn’t considered. It is the revenue from these sports that provides opportunities to students to compete at the college level—and at the Olympics. In the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, for example, the collective profits from basketball and football and institutional funding at 130 schools provide support for 2,100 low and non-revenue teams.
The United States is one of only three countries where Olympic athletes receive no government funding. Without our colleges and universities making investments in student-athletes, we might not have an Olympic effort—or it would have to be funded by the federal government or private donors. The likelihood of that happening is very remote. In the frequent criticism of big-time athletics, it’s important to remember that without them the vast majority of students wishing to participate in college sports would not have the chance to do so.
— Tom McMillen