In a lower level, intramurals, NIRSA discovered even more of those qualities. In campus recreational facilities, the only place the organization’s survey found a stronger correlation with leadership was in groups of students who organized pickup games or joined fitness classes.
General student bodies should be asked to provide more support for these activities, rather than varsity teams that very few can join. In the 2018 fiscal year, students underwrote N.C.A.A. Division I programs with $1.2 billion in mandatory and often undisclosed fees, according to an NBC Sports investigation. That was a 51 percent increase from a decade earlier, compared with a 37 percent jump in annual tuition at four-year public colleges.
A downsizing of varsity teams may force a reconsideration of the way Team U.S.A. athletes train. Many, at least in the Summer Olympic sports, develop their skills in N.C.A.A. programs with elite facilities. But so do competitors from abroad, drawn to the only university system in the world that offers athletic scholarships. In the 2016 Summer Games, nearly a quarter of all the medalists who had competed in the N.C.A.A. were representing countries other than the United States.
National sports governing bodies may have to work more closely with a more concentrated set of universities to build Team U.S.A. Some already are.
Did you know the school that sent the most Olympians, 18, to the 2018 Winter Games was tiny Westminster College, which doesn’t even have an N.C.A.A. program? The Salt Lake City school was merely the “official education partner” of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, providing free tuition to emerging talent identified by the federation.
Also, some of Team U.S.A.’s greatest performers, like the gymnast Simone Biles and the swimmer Michael Phelps, have never competed in college, because they reached elite status in high school and chose to accept lucrative sponsorships that disqualified them from N.C.A.A. participation.
Mine is not a call for the abolition of big-time football or basketball, or any revenue-producing sport. These are marketing tools for universities, and they’re not going away. Neither is Title IX, the federal law forbidding discrimination based on sex at educational institutions, which provides a level of protection for women’s teams that were established long after men’s programs had built up paying audiences. Some endangered men’s teams, which produce little or no revenue, may even be preserved if bloated football rosters can ever be cut down.