Being a little slow on the uptake, I just discovered the joy of podcasts, and I downloaded a bunch of them on my iPod for a cross country trip. My wife told me that she heard Frank Deford on NPR discussing this very question and quoting the proponent of this thought, Princeton's Athletic Director, Gary Walters. I decided to check out the podcast and have some thoughts on it.
Deford was eloquent in his dissection of the issue, and I suggest that you listen to the podcast and form your own point of view. My view is that the arts deserve a bigger break and higher status because of the greater struggles involved in pursuing them at most universities. Sports can be a big business at many schools, and at some there are more assistant football coaches than there are assistant deans of students, let alone art and music instructors. That's not to say that sports don't have a place, they do, but the arts typically don't draw the staggering alumni support, financial resources and, okay, sometimes less-than-deserving (from an academic point of view) "student-athletes" than the arts. Read Michael Lewis's book "The Blind Side" and his brief indictment of Ole Miss football players to see what I'm talking about.
There are exceptions everywhere, of course, but even the Ivies and the DIII liberal arts colleges around the country can fall victim to putting a disproportionate amount of funds to athletics. Why? Because alums like sports, and if alums played the sport, they're sometimes prone to donate money to the teams that they played for. And there's nothing wrong with that. But the dedication to winning, even to see Williams try to perenially whomp Amherst, seems to be greater than to have Amherst's version of the Whiffenpoofs (I think they're called Zumbays, but I can't be sure) sing on a national stage. It seems to me that most schools spend considerably less money on their orchestras and theatre programs than they do their football and basketball teams. And lest you contend marching bands are part of the arts, at DI schools they are part of the football pageantry and in the Ivies they're a sometimes decent inside joke, but they don't form a part of the arts culture on campus. The true art form of marching bands is at the traditionally black colleges, where the marching band is a form of art (and perhaps harder to join than it is to make the football team).
But I've digressed too far. Are the arts more attractive because excelling in them is less common, is more subjective, and isn't subject to a conversation of winning and losing? Are those who play sports disdained because glory on the field or in the arena is more easily given to athletes than it is to writers on the school newspaper or ballet dancers on campus? Is it unfair that one can major in journalism or music or sculpting but not in football or basketball, and is there a difference as to why you can major in one and not the other? All are good and compelling questions worthy of discussion.
Walters is more and less likely to win his argument at a place like Princeton. He's less likely because, well, you don't go to an Ivy League school to emphasize a sport. You go for the education and to become well rounded. Yet, the debate on campus on the topic is likely to be more lively, as the Ivies are more likely to intellectualize a curveball (a Yale prof once wrote a book on the physics of baseball) and discuss the group dynamics of a successful basketball team (as has been done at Penn) than, say, an SEC school that is much more interested in beating its in-conference opponent and making sure its athletic dorms are conference standard than say sponsoring a conservatory. Still, at a place like Princeton, Walters has an uphill fight. It also doesn't help him that the two marquis sports programs -- men's basketball and football -- are at relatively low ebbs right now. If those sports are an art right now, they're the type of art that you buy by the yard and see at auctions and flea markets. Sorry to be harsh, but the great thing about sports is that the records don't lie.
In contrast, the argument is probably a winner at the BCS conference schools. Sports are not only accorded as much respect as the arts, they're accorded more. After all, Boone Pickens gave about a quarter billion to his alma mater, Oklahoma State, for athletics. Not for batik, baroque music or a mime company. Pick an SEC school or a Big 10 school (perhaps other than Vanderbilt and Northwestern) and you'll get more of the same. Sports are huge, so if Walters wants a better environment for his beloved sports programs, he should take a shot at being an Athletic Director at a "big-time" school.
Finally, I think that Walters has the question backwards or even wrong. At some schools the question should be "why aren't the arts accorded as much respect as sports?" Worse, at others, the question should be, "why aren't academics accorded as much respect as athletics?" Sadly, there are many schools where this could be the case.
His question, in short, is a luxury for most institutions, where the reality doesn't provide the facts to legtimize the basis for asking the question.