Daniel Sutter: Protectionism for college sports?

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Daniel SutterCollege sports provide great opportunities for young people to play at a high level, make life-long friends and memories, and pay for their education. Student-athletes learn important life and business lessons about things like team work and time management. But who should get these opportunities, American or international students?

I have observed a seemingly large proportion of international student-athletes in my classes in several sports over the years. To see if my perception was accurate, I examined the current rosters of Southeastern and Sun Belt conferences men’s and women’s tennis and golf teams. Four Alabama universities play in these conferences, including Troy in the Sun Belt. Tennis and golf, unlike football or softball, are played in many countries and should feature a large supply of skilled international recruits.

In the SEC international students make up 43 percent of the tennis teams and about a quarter of the golf teams. The Sun Belt is even more international, at 39 percent for golf and 79 percent for tennis. Sun Belt rosters in these four sports include over 170 international student-athletes.

What should we make of this? First, international students attending American universities and receiving athletic scholarships are totally separate questions. International students contribute enormously to our university communities, and I have had the opportunity to teach many excellent international students. Classmates from across the globe enrich American students’ experience by keeping academic standards high and bringing a diversity of cultures to campus. The international students benefit enormously as well, both from the education received and the experience. International exchanges are undoubtedly a win-win proposition for America’s universities.

Furthermore, there are very good reasons for college sports to include the best student-athletes, beginning with competition. Sports are generally very meritorious, and many athletes would likely agree that the best players deserve scholarships. Additionally, young Americans wishing to pursue professional careers eventually must compete against the world’s best, and so might as well do so in college

International recruiting elevates the quality of play and affords teams a competitive advantage, which fans often demand. The college I attended recruited hockey players from Canada, including several future NHL stars who helped win a national title. I happily celebrated the championship.

Golf and tennis, however, are “non-revenue” sports, with few fans. Universities fund non-revenue sports and their scholarships using other athletics revenues or student fees. Because public universities use tuition and ultimately tax dollars, one can argue that athletic scholarships, at least in non-revenue sports, should help young Americans go to college.

Additionally, public policy has specifically encouraged women’s sports through Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. Noting how polls show that Americans’ overwhelmingly support Title IX, the Women’s Sports Foundation claims that “The American public believes that sports participation is as important for our daughters as it is for our sons.” I totally agree with this sentiment, but it seemingly implies that American women should get to play.

Signing more skilled international student-athletes helps teams enjoy success. This success benefits coaches and athletic directors. We should expect coaches to recruit the best student-athletes allowed by rule. Consequently, reserving more scholarships for Americans may require an NCAA rule, but it would hardly be without precedent in sports. The Canadian Football League, for example, limits the number of American players allowed. And a limit need not exclude international student-athletes totally.

Normally preventing willing, qualified foreign workers from filling jobs increases costs and hurts our economy. And yet the economic consequences for non-revenue college sports are quite minor, as the cost would be basically unchanged. The absolute level of play may be somewhat lower, but conference and national champions will still be crowned every year.

Our public universities use tuition and ultimately tax dollars to fund college sports competitions with little fan interest. The educational value of sports generally may make this worthwhile, and Federal policy specifically encourages women’s sports. Our universities definitely should continue to welcome international students, but we should also think about for whom we are staging college athletics.

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Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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