Last week Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell handed down a tough directive to state agency heads: As you start putting together your budgets for the next biennium, look hard for places to cut—and don't spare anything. Programs that bring matching federal funds? On the table. Programs required by current state law? On the table. We can always change the law.

Given these stark realities, perhaps now is the point at which Virginia leaders should give college athletics a long, hard look. Why? Two reasons: (1) They cost a gawdawful lot of money, and (2) they have nothing to do with the purpose of a university.

Most college athletic departments are a net drain on the budget. Three years ago, the NCAA issued a report that found most athletic departments operate in the red. A more recent analysis by Bloomberg found the same thing: 46 of the 53 schools it looked at subsidized their sports programs. The money usually comes from sources such as student activity fees, such as that charged at Virginia Commonwealth University. Earlier this year VCU jacked up its fee by $50 to help fund the Rams basketball program.

A story last year in USA Today reported that "at least six schools—all in Virginia—charged each of their students more than $1,000 as an athletics fee for the 2008-09 school year. That ranged from 10 percent to more than 23 percent of the total tuition and mandatory-fee charges for in-state students." Yet some students never attend so much as a single basketball or football game—never mind a lacrosse match or rowing competition.

There are some exceptions. Depending on the year, one to two dozen athletic departments around the country turn a profit. Those are the ones such as Virginia Tech with huge football programs (or, occasionally, great basketball). At those schools, the football and men's basketball teams end up subsidizing all the rest—from women's basketball to men's tennis.

Kristi Dosh, a lawyer who specializes in sports financing and who runs the blog businessofcollegesports.com, has analyzed how much sports other than football and men's basketball siphon off. Most of the time, she has found, the cost of other sports more than outweighs the net gain from football and basketball, and the losses can be huge even before adding in big variables such as coaches' salaries, aid to student athletes and recruiting.

Take the University of Florida. During the 2009-2010 school year it raked in $44 million from football and $2 million from men's basketball—but lost $2.8 million on women's basketball, $5.3 million on other men's sports, and $10 million on other women's sports. And that's before you include the cost of coaches' salaries ($17.4 million), aid to student athletes ($7.5 million), and recruiting ($1.4 million).

Unlike Florida most universities don't have a top-20 football team—if they have a football team at all. And even many that do end up looking like Rutgers, which (reports Bloomberg) last year gave the women's basketball coach a monthly golf allowance while removing professors' desk phones from the history department to cut costs.

True, Virginia law ostensibly limits the use of public funds for athletics. But athletic-department budgets are notoriously opaque: Money pours into one big pot from a variety of sources (e.g., ticket sales, alumni donations, student fees), gets mingled together and then gets spent on everything from salaries to Gatorade. As a VMI spokesman told USA Today, information about athletic fees is "buried in our budget."

But not only is the financing fudge-able, money is fungible. In other words: If VCU were not spending $600 of each student fee on athletics, some of that money might be available for, say, assistant professors. Ditto for alumni donations, endowment proceeds, and the like. This in turn would reduce a school's need for state funds.

Sports backers and school officials will have some retorts to all of this. For example, they will say students need diversion. Maybe — but when they want it, they go to football and basketball games, not men's golf or women's lacrosse.

Well, schools will say, students are not just brains on sticks; we are trying to develop the whole person. This would be a good argument for mandatory student participation in intramural sports or a music appreciation class. It is not a very strong argument for subsidizing field hockey away games.

(Then there's Title IX—but that's a whole column unto itself.)

Finally, it is also true that, like athletic departments, nearly all university operations are a net drain on the budget. Your average English or religious-studies department is not what anyone would call a cash cow. About that, two points.

First, this goes to the heart of what a university ought to do: educate students—not entertain them. Second, there is no doubt that college course catalogues could use pruning as well. Most schools have a few notorious "gut" classes—where you get a B for signing up and an A for showing up—as well as numerous less-than-crucial courses such as the University of Virginia’s "Narratives of Illness and Doctoring" or James Madison University’s "Oral History and Social Justice."

They should be on the table, too.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.