Love of the Game

“What?! You Don’t Take College Sports Seriously?” This was the title of last week’s DK Smith Economics Lecture by Charles Clotfelter, an economist from Duke University who has researched athletics in higher education. After listening to his talk, the only conclusion one could reach is that we should indeed take sports seriously because they play a significant role at American universities. Yet, their full weight has traditionally been overlooked and is just now being explored.

Clotfelter explained that his research has focused on Big Sports—basketball and football that have a commercial component (think ESPN or Nike endorsements). He did not look at Division III or at women’s sports. The results of his work are published in his recent book Big-Time Sports in American Universities.

He asked the audience to imagine themselves at a major U.S. university, giving a visitor a tour of the campus. You would most likely tell the visitor that the university’s purpose is to engage in research and teaching. You’d show him buildings where teaching takes place and the labs where research takes place. But, as you approach the football stadium, how do you explain that huge piece of expensive infrastructure and its educational purpose?  “We are the only country in the world that does this,” he said, referring to maintaining commercial sports teams. “We are unique in that way.”

Yet for all of the hoopla, athletics are not mentioned in most university mission statements, he discovered. This “absence of attention” seems to have been a source of befuddlement to Clotfelter. “It’s almost like a parallel universe,” he said. “Are we embarrassed that it’s there?” He pointed out that it’s easier to find scholarly studies about obscure academic topics than it is to find any research about intercollegiate athletics. His work is beginning to remedy that.

He went looking for measurable indicators of sports’ significance. “The New York Times is the paper of record,” he said, “and 87 percent of articles about these schools were about sports.” Or what about fan feedback? On one survey, 33 percent of the fans reported that they “lived and died” by their team, being “happy if they win and sad if they lose.” Another measure he looked at was compensation for faculty, presidents, and football coaches. In 2009-10, professors at 44 institutions received raises of 32 percent, presidents 90 percent, and coaches 650 percent.

Sports are so significant at some schools, he said, that they can bring things to a halt. “Try setting up a meeting that would conflict with a basketball game. You can do it, but nobody will come.” He found that Big Sports are the subject of lunchtime conversations and Google searches, the reason people call in sick on Monday mornings, and parking headaches during games.

The general public might feel that athletics teach sportsmanship, bring money to the institution (“most athletic departments lose money”), build community bonds, and bring attention and contributions to the institution. But, Clotfelter pointed out, there are deep-seated contradictions. Critics say that sports exploit players and come at the expense of academics. Many of the negatives have been well publicized: more binge drinking; less time in class; the loss of free expression, such as players being required to wear the “Nike swoosh” on their uniforms and being prohibited from displaying any personal expression. “Yet,” he says, “there are unheralded spillovers”: Sports are run generally by meritocracy—you earn your success. They provide good civic lessons because everyone has to follow the same rules—the game always starts at 0 and everyone works from there. And they encourage diversity because labels must be put aside in order to work as a team.

Clotfelter concluded by saying that “Big Sports in American higher education is a mixed bag.” One fascinating statistic leaves one to ponder this mixed bag. It’s the Shanghai Jiao Tong University International Ranking, which rates the top universities in the world. U.S. institutions make up 17 of the top 20, and many of them are Big Sports schools. Is there a correlation? More research to come.

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