Has sport become more important than education at US universities?

For US colleges and universities, the sports they play have become more important than the subjects they teach. This is the other way round compared to almost all other countries, where sport is important but definitely secondary to education.

In the last week, two stories that show how big college sports are in the US have come to light: one that tells how the University of Missouri football team had the power to fire the university President after racial tension on campus and another that describes how the NCAA shut down a family-run website selling merchandise for one of college football’s top players, Leonard Fournette.

In both of these cases, it shows just how important football is to the university and the individuals involved. In Fournette’s case, he is one of the highest-profile college football athletes in America. He has been compared to two of the best running backs in history, Adrian Peterson and Herschel Walker – and he’s only a sophomore at university, 20 years old and two years out of high school.

In the other story, the University of Missouri being able to fire the university President, a similar thing has happened: the football team has more collective power than any other group at the university. Tensions were high at the Columbia campus, as racist attacks have occurred over the last few months, with a tepid response from the university administration. With scores of students going on a hunger strike, president Tim Wolfe didn’t budge – until the football team joined them. Less than 48 hours after, Wolfe had resigned.

So how has this happened? Because somehow, sport has become more important than education in most US universities. Part of why this has happened is money – there are millions of dollars in college sports and their players, such as Fournette. To a university in the current climate, this is worth more than a top professor or researcher who would be able to raise money in the form of a grant, plus the higher profile in the media that comes with it.

In other countries, such as the UK or European nations such as Spain, Italy, France or Germany, sport takes a backseat while at university. Instead, a potential superstar player in a sport such as soccer will have been head-hunted to play for a top team from a young age. As time goes on, gradually the player will be more included in the team through the youth squads, until they play for the club at a professional match. This is how top soccer players, such as Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney, came to be two of the best players in the sport.

The alternative US system won’t change any time soon – the Drafts for the respective sports are popular and broadcast on mainstream TV, with a lot of attention paid to who gets the first round pick. But it’s interesting to note how different this is to Europe and Asia’s player development programmes.