College sports - popularity built off a dark past

February, 2024
Asya MorozovClaire Yang

From the University of Connecticut’s renowned women’s basketball team to Michigan’s football team, every college has a sports team that they’re known for. Duke University dominates men’s basketball with 19 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles. College football has seen an alltime high viewership, with 27.2 million viewers watching a gripping semifinal game between Michigan and Alabama.

With certain sports having such a huge presence around the world, there is bound to be some favoritism towards certain “elite” sports based on how much income they generate, which, when paired with frequent bias against players based on race, gender, or economic status, brings about a set of issues that have plagued college sports for centuries, tainting their history. So how did these issues wind up affecting colleges’ favorite sports?

Before the birth of college sports, sports were mostly viewed as hobbies or a form of physical exercise without any real competition behind them. In 1843, rowing clubs were the first to be made into competitive sports teams at Yale, and at Harvard a year later. In 1852, the first ever Yale-Harvard Regatta, a rowing race, was held, marking the beginning of college sports and long-term rivalries between prestigious colleges.

In the early twentieth century, it became apparent that colleges began to dominate certain sports. Harvard and Yale won national championships in football and continued their rivalry that persists to this day. Many others take great care to uphold the tradition mainly because of the attention these sports still receive today. As time went on, getting attention from the public became important for revenue, so colleges’ focus began to shift to revenue-generating sports. More athletic scholarships became available for traditionally popular sports like football and basketball. Similarly, in the 1970s, athletic grants-in-aid were mainly for sports such as swimming, track, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, and baseball. The sports with large fanbases, such as football, received the most funding; improving the quality of other sports would stress the budget of the athletic department. This problem persists today — supporting non-revenue generating sports is not a gamble athletic directors want to take, leading to insufficient funds, equipment, and training space for them. College students today resent revenue-generating sports that siphon support and resources away from their school activities. However, despite pouring millions of dollars into their preferred sports, many colleges still face financial issues if their sports don’t make a profit that year. This leads to schools increasing their athletic fees and even college tuition. Favoritism of collegiate sports not only impacts nonrevenue-generating sports, but favors athletes and students with higher incomes that bring more to the team than just athletic prowess.

In addition to financial issues, colleges have a long-standing problem with representation in sports. Historically, college varsity teams were made up of exclusively white wealthy men. Racial bias and prejudice motivated colleges to favor white male athletes who were able to contribute to the team financially. This changed in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, when Texas Western’s all-Black team won the national basketball championship in 1966 against the University of Kentucky’s all-white team. This event was a turning point that signified an important shift in acceptance of Black athletes into collegiate sports, opening new opportunities for people of color across the board.

Similar progress was made, not just regarding race, but also gender, beginning with the Title IX legislation. This landmark legislation forbade discrimination based on gender, leveling the playing field in collegiate varsity teams. However, there is still a huge gap in financial support for women’s sports, which is typically due to lower viewership. This leads to underfunding and fewer athletic scholarships for female athletes.

Despite their complicated history of economic, racial, and gender discrimination, millions of people enjoy college sports today, whether they’re watching the latest football game with friends or chatting about a new basketball matchup. While modern college sports are miles more accepting than they used to be, they are still lacking in many areas. Race- and gender-based discrimination are still prevalent, and opportunities for the less economically fortunate are very limited. Although watching college sports is fun and a staple of American culture, it’s important to understand the history of these sports and fight against their elitist status to truly bring equality to one of America’s most beloved forms of entertainment.