The headline is stark. "Crusade Against College Sports," it blares. The subhead describes a "battle" by critics against their rise.

It might have been torn from yesterday's newspaper. Unfortunately, the date on the clipping is March 29, 1908.

That should give pause to anyone ticked at the decision last week by the gods of elite college football to create a kind of undergraduate Super Bowl in order to crown an undisputed national champion.

Nothing better symbolizes the misguided priorities of American higher education than big-time college football. Now that we've learned football causes potentially catastrophic head trauma, and at a time when states all across the country have slashed funding for higher education, what do we get? A better collegiate playoff system.

I know, I know, the current system is terrible, the new one is fairer, and fans will enjoy it. Most of all, the new arrangement will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in new TV revenue. By way of perspective, colleges spend around $10.5 billion annually on sports. But sports generate little more than half this sum.

From a larger social standpoint, the best that can be said about the new college football championship is that it doesn't make a bad situation much worse -- unless it encourages more schools to strive for a costly goal line few can reach.

College sports are a fine thing when kept in perspective, especially if more than just an elite few can participate. But while football subsidizes other sports at some schools, it runs a deficit at most of them, siphoning resources from education. And the grading and recruiting scandals common in college sports sow campus corruption.

Contrary to what many people seem to think, teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (the highest level) aren't generating a king's ransom to fund philosophy departments and cancer research. Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, says that when you count capital spending, only 20 percent to 30 percent of such teams make money. When they do generate a surplus, it's usually just spent on intercollegiate athletics.

Big-time college athletics loses money more broadly, too. In an analysis of high-level college sports at 54 public institutions, Bloomberg News found that 48 of the schools lost money on athletics in fiscal 2011. The average shortfall was $6.1 million. At Rutgers, the athletics program was subsidized to the tune of $28.5 million beyond what it took in on ticket sales and the like. According to Bloomberg, that's enough to hire 256 faculty members at the rank of assistant professor.

It gets worse. A study ordered up by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that, from 2005-09, spending on college sports increased much faster than academic spending at Division I schools (those with the highest level sports programs).

Does big-time sports raise a school's profile? I suppose so. But perhaps such schools, in the absence of sports, would strive to distinguish themselves in other ways: in the classroom, for instance, or the laboratory.

Now, I'm not foolish enough to think pointing out such facts will deter fans of big-time college football. As Zimbalist says, "Nobody's going to roll back the commercial juggernaut."

On the other hand, parents and students can avoid schools that waste a lot of money on sports. Courageous academic leaders, meanwhile, can just say no, and keep the focus on academics. In 2009 Hofstra University did just that, ending football and putting $4.5 million in annual savings to better uses.

Who knows? Maybe in another 100 years or so, the crusade against college sports can finally come to an end.


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