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Make participants, not all students, pay cost of athletics, says an author

In 1995 a federal district court judge in Rhode Island ruled that Brown University had discriminated against female athletes by eliminating two women's sports teams.

Brown's executive vice president, Robert Reichley, warned that the university might have no choice but to cut funding for certain men's sports in order to comply with the ruling.

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Two years later the United States Supreme Court has issued a decision upholding the lower court's ruling in the 1995 case, and now Brown University may finally be forced to carry out its threat.

But what Brown's vice president once intended as a warning may actually come as welcome news to the hordes of young Americans who each year graduate from college deep in debt.

You see, schools like Brown University spend millions of dollars annually on intercollegiate athletic programs that, in most instances, lose money. At Brown, for example, whose moderately competitive teams chew up more than $3 million a year of the school's budget, the university will spend, during the next four years, the equivalent of what it would take for roughly one-quarter of its undergraduates to graduate debt-free.

Looked at another way, savings from the elimination of sports teams could result in Brown's entire student population graduating 25 percent less in debt. (That's no small sum, considering that the average student now graduates owing between $10,000 and $12,000.)

And this is typical of most American colleges and universities, whose sports programs, unlike a handful of the more celebrated ones, don't see millions of dollars in revenue from TV coverage and corporate sponsors.

The problem, however, goes beyond intercollegiate sports. Like Brown, many other universities today spend millions of dollars in additional funds on other parts of their athletic budgets, funds used for such things as junior varsity and intramural teams, as well as gymnasiums, weight rooms, Olympic-size pools, and even indoor tennis courts.

It is spending in areas like these that raises a question that today's cash-strapped students and their parents badly need answered:

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Should American universities continue spending freely on sports programs that are at best only marginally related to a higher education?

At the very least, most families would probably welcome some choice in the matter - the opportunity, say, to choose an "a la carte" education that would enable students to receive a basic, no-frills degree, and one that wouldn't require them, as part of their tuition, to subsidize the country-club lifestyle that few among us are in a position to afford.

Why not, for example, ask that the small minority of students who actually participate in intercollegiate sports foot the bill? And if such programs are as important to school morale as their supporters would have us believe, then why not charge students for the privilege of viewing these events?

The same approach could also be taken with regard to intramurals and other such informal recreational sports activities.

If students want to play indoor tennis or basketball in the middle of a cold New England winter, then let them pay for it. Let them do what members of the post-graduate (read real) world do, and decide for themselves whether such costs are worthwhile.

And if they should decide, as it seems reasonable they might, that a set of indoor tennis isn't worth the $75 an hour it would cost, universities like Brown should consider doing what every other private organization is forced to do when times are tough: cut back on services, close the pool, scrap the volleyball teams (yes, men's and women's), and get the message across to students that college isn't summer camp.

If American undergraduates and their parents don't want to end up drowning in debt, there seems no escaping that this is one of the cost-saving approaches that must be considered. Perhaps then a university administrator like Robert Reichley might understand that for today's debt-laden graduates his "threat" of cutting sports funding would probably be one of the best lessons a school like Brown could provide.

* Alex Abrams, former political analyst for MTV News, is co-author of "Late Bloomers: Coming of Age in Today's America, The Right Place at the Wrong Time."

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