The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported on a list of large gifts recently made to various universities and colleges. 

Michigan State University graduates Dan and Jennifer Gilbert dropped $15 million into renovations and expansions to the school’s sports arena, as well as some scholarships and support for the university’s center for persons with disabilities. San Diego State University is getting $25 million from Ron and Alexis Fowler (she graduated from and taught at SDSU in the ‘90s) for programs in the business school. Jeremy Lin supported his alma mater Harvard with a $1 million gift intended for upkeep at the basketball arena. 

What do these gifts have in common? They’ve all been made by graduates who went on to make big names for themselves in professional sports. Lin, of course, is the current point guard for the Brooklyn Nets; Dan Gilbert currently owns the Cleveland Cavaliers; and Ron Fowler is the chairman and part owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team. 

Thus these multimillion-dollar gifts all represent big pay-offs for these schools’ investments in sports programs over the years. Colleges and universities have been formalizing their attempts at soliciting from star athlete graduates for a while now. And as they continue to professionalize, college sports programs will more and more have to participate in planned philanthropy, as will coaches and players who participate in those programs. A separate Chronicle piece from 2015 quotes professor of sports management at Michigan Katherine Babiak, who notes that philanthropy is now “really … part of the athlete’s brand, their identity, their persona.” 

Higher education commentators who gnash their teeth over universities’ ballooning athletics budgets can’t deny that they bring back money to the school. Michigan State, home to one of the country’s most aggressive and prominent college sports programs, spent more than $100 million on intercollegiate athletics during the 2015-16 year, dwarfing the spending of individual academic and administrative departments by comparison. But when was the last time the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, for instance, brought in a $15 million gift? 

None of this should excuse the undeniable bloat that often results from beefing up collegiate athletic programs. And there are still, to be sure, unresolved questions about mission and identity that such investment forces each university to confront. But from a philanthropic point of view, these sort of gifts bear out what my colleague Macarena Pallares pointed out here the other day: Donors tend to give back to institutions that exert some sort of personal of sentimental pull on them. They are not calculating where their dollars will have optimal objective “impact,” but rather are supporting programs they know and love. In the world of higher education giving, athletics programs will continue to engender this sort of loyalty for a long time to come.