• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Big College Try

Ivy League colleges and some schools comparable to them do not give athletic scholarships, at least not under that name. But, if a student looks able to cope with the curriculum, they do give both preference and financial aid to the athletes they want. And at the Division IA schools, such as Penn State and the University of Michigan, students on their men’s intercollegiate teams make up only 5 percent of the male enrollments. But at small liberal arts colleges like Hamilton and Wesleyan, such students account for almost a third of the male students. The numbers rise this high because allocating places to athletes now extends well beyond football and basketball, and includes a broad variety of teams, ranging from volleyball and water polo to softball and lacrosse.

What can be wrong with having a third of a school’s students take part in a sport? In all of these sports, college teams compete with one another; students who have shown they can play them well can gain some preference in admissions. At first glance, some will say that such high proportions of participation in sports seems healthier than the proportion of one in twenty at Division IA institutions. The problem is that on the campuses studied by Shulman and Bowen, over half of those playing were expressly admitted to college so they could be on an intercollegiate team. Other students who might like to sign up and play softball or lacrosse find that the roster is already closed. Not only do coaches pay regular visits to the admissions office; they come with detailed lists. “I’m not just looking for a football player,” one told the authors, “I’m looking for a left outside linebacker.”

Football is in a class by itself. It is extremely expensive, not least because it has so many players. Among the schools studied in The Game of Life, squads ranged from 68 at Denison to 109 at Princeton. As Table A on the previous page shows, among the 599 colleges that sponsor football teams, the average roster contains 92 students. Williams, which had a team that size last year, has a coach and nine assistants, outnumbering the college’s philosophy department. Since football requires only eleven offensive or defensive players on the field, its squad has enough members for four teams. The result is that many never leave the bench, while others are sent in for only a few minutes of the game. And this, after all, is college football; why emulate the professionals by recruiting super-specialists and using them for only highly specific plays? This may make sense at Michigan, which has contracts with national television. But such large squads don’t make much sense at schools like those in the right half of Table B, where the stands are not exactly packed. And, as is shown in Table A, the typical men’s ice hockey team holds three members on the bench for each one who is playing, while men’s basketball and lacrosse recruit two backups for each one they need on the court.

Even when athletes can do the academic work, they have, on average, lower SAT scores and high school grades. This might be expected among football and basketball players, but it is also true with the less publicized sports like golf and tennis, which account for most of the teams. If we consider students who grow up playing such sports, moreover, most of those who benefit from athletic preferences are white and many are upper-middle-class. Shulman and Bowen were told that “almost half of the students from a leading prep school admitted to an Ivy League university were either outstanding hockey or lacrosse players and not particularly noteworthy students.”4

In football and basketball, black players make up a large proportion of many teams. Yet overall, Shulman and Bowen found that “recruitment of athletes has no marked effect on either the socio-economic composition of these schools or on their racial diversity.” At NCAA Division IA schools, which are the most zealous recruiters, black team members add only about one percent to their race’s presence in the student body. Altogether, by Shulman and Bowen’s count, athletes have an “admissions advantage” of 48 percent over unflagged candidates, compared to a 25 percent edge for children of alumni, and an 18 percent edge for minority applicants.

Once on the campus, they add, “academic underperformance among athletes is a pervasive phenomenon”—that is, their grades could reasonably be expected to be better. The explanation offered in The Game of Life is that team members sequester themselves in an “athletic culture,” in which academic studies are less important than they are for most other students. That may be true; but other reasons are just as important if not more so. Duke’s basketball team had thirty-four engagements during 1999–2000, mostly away from home and in the middle of the week, which meant a lot of missed classes. This occurs for many other sports as well. In the 2000 fall season, Stanford’s women’s volleyball team had thirteen games away—almost one a week—including trips to Utah and Arizona. This spring, the Stanford softball team will journey as far afield as Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia.

Toward the end of their book, Shulman and Bowen speak of “the lessons about life that are gained on the playing field.” But they never say what those lessons are. It would have been interesting for the authors to have had probing talks with athletes, including alumni, about what they believe they gained from playing team sports. The authors allude to “leadership,” but, again, never say what they mean by that trait. Presumably team captains are leaders; but how many others on the squad have to lead? While some sports rely on teamwork, quite a few don’t. Swimmers, runners, gymnasts, wrestlers, and singles tennis players compete as individuals; of course, they train together and want their side to win, but they are not involved in a collaborative effort when they compete. Indeed, there are other ways to encourage common work, as on a college newspaper or in classroom projects. Nor do most sports played at college have effects in later life. How many graduates go on playing lacrosse or water polo?

For myself I fully favor physical exertion, for health and enjoyment, and for its aesthetic satisfactions. I would not want to give up my own urban bicycling, swimming at Chelsea Piers, and Central Park croquet, and I sympathize with young people who want to take part in sports and perfect their athletic skills or simply have a good time. Of course, I want colleges to have gymnasiums and playing fields, as my commuter school does. The troubles start when sports are recast as a “program,” especially when the stress is on intercollegiate competition, for which players are recruited and then flown to distant matches. There are alternatives, and one mentioned by Shulman and Bowen is that schools downgrade intercollegiate competition to “club sports,” in which teams compete against other schools but don’t have paid coaches and recruiting advantages. “To revert to the club sports model,” they write, also has “the advantage of encouraging student initiative, since participating students coordinate their activities with those of other clubs, agree upon rules and budgets, and generally take responsibility for their teams.”


Not surprisingly, all three of the books under review discuss the economics of intercollegiate sports. Duderstadt draws largely on Michigan and other members of the Big Ten football conference, all of which seek television coverage and hope to compete in postseason bowl games. For many colleges men’s football and basketball bring in plenty of money, mainly from selling tickets. In theory, this would be enough to underwrite their other intercollegiate teams, of which Michigan has twenty-one and Ohio State thirty-five. (Wesleyan, where football and basketball lose money, has twenty-seven other teams.) In fact, as Shulman and Bowen show, even sell-out sports do not raise enough to fund the athletic budget.

Here their analysis, much of it based on original research, is the best part of the book. They estimate that private universities like Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Tulane may contribute as much as $12 million from general funds annually to subsidize teams that play against other schools. This is mainly because “intercollegiate athletics is a highly capital-intensive activity.” Maintaining football stadiums that are used only six times a year can cost a lot of money, in addition to the millions of dollars in costs when a school decides to build a new one. If women’s field hockey wants to attract star players, it must offer a field covered with artificial turf. At Williams, which Shulman and Bowen use as a case study, outlays for buildings and other capital costs raise the athletic budget to three times what the college reports, a ratio common at most institutions.

In professional sports, we know that successful teams attract more spectators, with high profits for the owners. By the same token, colleges and universities like to think that alumni gifts and other contributions will increase if they can field winning teams. As it happens, a large economic literature addresses this hypothesis. Studies have found that donations may rise if a school gets to a football bowl game or the national basketball tournament. Since only a few teams make it that far, the bottom line is that it’s best not to rely on sports to bring in money.5 Indeed, Shulman and Bowen found that “big givers as a group are somewhat more inclined to want to reduce emphasis on athletics than to increase it.”

While all three books end with suggestions for correcting the conditions they discuss, they offer them half-heartedly and with scant expectation that they will ever be accepted. (Duderstadt calls his concluding section “Tilting at Windmills.”) They would like to see fewer athletic scholarships and fewer other advantages in admissions given to athletes. But in fact even Ivy League colleges are expanding their recruitment of athletes. So on the principle that it’s best to ride a tide that can’t be stopped, elsewhere on this page can be found a proposal for turning intercollegiate encounters to educational ends.


An acquaintance of mine conducts an undergraduate seminar on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The twelve students read most of his work, and during the semester develop a good understanding of his ideas. Their instructor believes that Rousseau is fundamentally a democratic thinker, and that his work has important lessons for our time. While she does not impose this view, it inevitably informs her teaching.

On a campus some 2,000 miles away another professor also has a seminar on Rousseau, of about the same size and demanding the same degree of preparation. However, it is his belief that Rousseau’s philosophy of the General Will carries the seeds of totalitarianism, and his seminar reflects that emphasis.

Toward the end of the semester, the professor and students from the first seminar will fly, at their college’s expense, to the other campus. There, they will spend a full weekend meeting with the members of second seminar; the subject, needless to say, will be Rousseau. The two professors have arranged a tentative agenda, but will stay mainly on the sidelines. (After all, they are only coaches, and the teams should now to play on their own.) No scores will be recorded; nor will one college be named the winner. Spectators can attend, but they are to sit in a separate section and may not participate.

With the help of Internet exchanges, similar meetings are scheduled on subjects ranging from cell biology and evolutionary psychology to homosexuality in the Victorian novel. Under this program, it seems possible that during each semester as many as a third of all undergraduates at these and other colleges will be taking part in inter-collegiate academics.

  1. 4

    James Shulman recently added, “Choices are being made and policies are being set without anyone saying why lacrosse talent should matter significantly in the equation.” See “The Struggle Between Athletes and Academic Values,” Chronicle of Higher Education (February 23, 2001), p. B9.

  2. 5

    See Thomas A. Rhoads and Shelby Gerking, “Educational Contributions, Academic Quality, and Athletic Success,” Contemporary Economic Policy (April 2000), pp. 248–258; Robert A. Baade and Jeffrey O. Sundberg, “Fourth Down and Gold to Go? Assessing the Link between Athletics and Alumni Giving,” Social Science Quarterly (December 1996), pp. 789– 803; Sarah E. Turner, et al., “Winning and Giving,” unpublished paper available from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (December 2000).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print