The Corner

National Security & Defense

America Sure Does Have a Department of Sports — We Just Call It ‘Education’ and ‘Charity’

In response to New York Review of Lefties

Paul Crookston made the quite valid point last week that it’s impressive that the U.S. dominates the Summer Olympics (winter, not so much) without the massive sports bureaucracy other countries have. He certainly has a point, but there’s at least one factor, besides our status as the world’s largest wealthy country by far, that complicates the analysis:

The U.S. spends huge amounts of public money on sports — it just doesn’t go through a federal Department of Sport. In fact, this is a dynamic that underlies a lot of American exceptionalism: America’s government isn’t always a lot smaller than those of our socialist counterparts, it’s just better hidden.

The most jarring example in sports is college athletics: Large universities in America spend staggering amounts of public money on sports. While the largest most successful departments break even, the vast majority of sports teams and the vast majority of NCAA athletics departments require huge subsidies. And our colleges and universities play a huge role in supporting American Olympic athletes (in fact, they’re so good at it that plenty of athletes from less prosperous countries come here to swim – Robert Mugabe’s favorite swimmer is an Auburn girl). Some of the most elite Olympians don’t compete in college: Michael Phelps, for instance, didn’t swim in college, but almost every other U.S. Olympic swimmer did. In total, 417 of the 555 members of Team USA this year are, have been, or will be NCAA athletes (the NCAA website proudly boasts).

Other countries do have nominal university sports programs, and Nick Saban’s salary certainly isn’t boosting us at the Olympics. But even a tiny slice of the budget of NCAA programs would dwarf the budgets of, say, Great Britain’s UK Sport, and possibly China’s own opaquely funded sports efforts.

Meanwhile, at the high school level, numbers are hard to come by, but Americans almost certainly spend much more money and time on promoting sports in our K-12 educational system than our peer countries do, too.

And then there’s the U.S. Olympic Committee and the whole range of nonprofits, like USA Swimming or US Sailing, that help organize and train athletes outside of our schools. In addition to program fees and revenues, they rely on donations from foundations, individuals, and corporations – all subsidized by the federal government up to 40 or so cents on the dollar, thanks to our charitable tax deduction (which is uniquely generous on an international level).

Now, I’m not saying this all adds up to sports socialism. I’m not objecting to any of it in particular, really: Supporting civil society with tax incentives is certainly a good, American idea; college and high school sports are great, etc. Voters and politicians like sports, and publicizing how much public money goes to support them may not change policies one iota.

It’s just interestingly emblematic of a larger dynamic between the U.S. and the rest of the world. It’s easy to think we had a great free-market health care system before Obamacare; in reality our government spends more per capita on health care than any single-payer system on earth. We have a smaller federal government than Western European countries, but that difference largely disappears when you add in state and local spending.

We may not have a Department of Sport; instead, we have hundreds of them, and the taxpayer probably kicks in much more than he might for the genuine article.

Patrick Brennan was a senior communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration and is former opinion editor of National Review Online.


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