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The Big College Try

Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education

Murray Sperber
Henry Holt, 322 pp., $26.00

As president of the University of Michigan from 1988 through 1995, James Duderstadt was the chief executive of one of the nation’s top centers for graduate education and research. While he had previously served as a provost and a dean, it was only on becoming president that he found how much of his time and energy would be taken up by the school’s athletic program. Despite its general title, his book draws largely on his Michigan experience and it is full of revelations about college sports. Here are a few examples:

—Football teams at universities like Michigan, Florida, and Notre Dame are now “more valuable than most professional football franchises.”

—In what is basically a barter agreement, Nike supplies or otherwise pays for all of Michigan’s sports equipment. In return, it can place its “swoosh” logo on the uniforms the players wear.

—Licensing the university’s name for commercial products has become a major source of revenue. One best seller is a musical toilet seat that plays “Hail to the Victors!” when raised.

—Over half of Michigan’s football players eventually suffer injuries requiring surgery. Its medical school recently opened an orthopedic clinic inside the university’s sports complex.1

—Being a sports power puts you on television. But “the more one is televised, the more one must spend.” Michigan’s new scoreboard, with graphics to divert homebound viewers, cost $8 million.

—“Many minority athletes eat together, live together, study together, and have little interaction with the white student majority on most campuses.” At some schools, black students who are brought in to join their teams are virtually the only members of their race at the institutions.

—“Less than 25 percent of the spectators at Big Ten football and basketball games are students. In fact, most students do not attend athletic events on a regular basis.” Indeed, Duderstadt adds, “As I used to walk through tailgate crowds on my way to a Michigan football game, I used to marvel at just how few of these fans had any connection whatever to the university.”

—“Every university has a number of courses taught by faculty members well disposed toward intercollegiate athletics. Student-athletes with weaker academic skills are steered toward these safe harbors.” No professors are named.

1.

Beer and Circus is Murray Sperber’s third book assessing the impact of sports on this country’s campuses. He teaches at Indiana University, long a bastion of big-time athletics, where he has not been exactly popular with coaches, boosters, and alumni. In his current book, he has two major theses.

He begins by arguing that large universities, especially those within state systems, have given up on undergraduate education. He does not say there was once a golden age, since one can easily cite a philistine past. Rather, he judges what is happening according to his own conception of what a college experience ought to be. Some of what he describes is familiar: for example, the vast lecture rooms where the professor can barely be seen, while more and more classes are being taught by adjuncts and graduate assistants. A student, he observes, can even receive a bachelor’s degree without writing a paper. These conditions reflect “a truce between faculty who want to spend a minimum of time on undergraduate teaching and students who want to obtain a degree as easily as possible.” By Sperber’s calculations, at “an average research university,” only about a third of the classes are taught by full-time faculty. Part of the pact is grade inflation, which reduces student complaints and relieves professors from having to defend harsher appraisals.

Sperber contends that lack of money is not the central issue. True, state schools tend to be huge. Ohio State University is fairly typical. During the academic year 1999–2000, it had 42,869 students, of whom 30,958 were undergraduates, with 6,105 of them freshmen. At the same time, the full-time faculty numbered 2,930, of whom 2,053 had professorial appointments. If we divide the second faculty fig-ure into the full student body, there was one professor for every twenty-one students. (At Stanford and Duke, highly regarded private schools, the ratio is one to eighteen.) Even though graduate programs usually make heavier demands on teaching time, there should, in theory, be enough professors to teach most undergraduates in small or mid-sized classes. However, Sperber writes that “professors dislike teaching introductory courses because the material is so far from their research.” And it isn’t likely they will have to, since they benefit from “a faculty reward system that relentlessly denigrates undergraduate teaching.”

If this account tends to be familiar and widely accepted, Sperber’s next point is more open to question. Because of their “inability to provide quality undergraduate education to most of their students,” he writes, university administrators have chosen to

spend increasing amounts of money on their athletic departments, and use big-time college sports—commercial entertainment around which many undergraduates organize their hyperactive social lives—to keep their students happy and distracted.

Pursuing this theme, Beer and Circus has much to say about campus rallies and other festivities devoted to exalting the teams, as well as the bonfires and parades at which the school’s president is expected to be present and join in. He cites surveys showing that most students applying to colleges know more about their teams than they do about their academic programs. And he quotes liberally from published guides to colleges, which identify some well-known ones as “party schools.”

Despite his spirited account of campus rallies, Sperber never tells us how many students take part. All indications are that most do not. To start, women outnumber men at many of the schools that sponsor nationally known teams, like his own Indiana (54.2 percent); Florida State (55.6 percent); and North Carolina (60.8 percent). While many women may be fans, my Big Ten friends tell me that at least some probably attend the beer-and-bonfire rallies to humor boyfriends. In fact, as Duderstadt noted, only a minority of undergraduates attend the games. One reason is that they also have to pay for their tickets, albeit at reduced prices, and then are relegated to end-zone seats. Stands are increasingly filled with visiting fans, many of them visibly middle-aged.

Nor do I agree with Sperber that most students are looking for an easy degree. My own observation after teaching thousands of college students is that all but a few of them would like a demanding education, with stimulating and committed teachers. Even alumni who are not of a scholarly bent recall courses that engaged them, and say they wish that they had had more. Nor am I persuaded by his idea that undergraduates are drawn to sports as a solace because they feel deprived of seminars. However much some of us may deplore the glorification of athletics, I doubt that these contests are sufficient to provide relief from boring classes and unavailable professors. Moreover, from what I have seen, a good many undergraduates become adept at putting together an education, largely by exchanging information on courses they have liked. Nor are these necessarily classes known for high and easy grades.2

Sperber is also much concerned about heavy drinking by undergraduates, especially at large universities. Beer flows freely at fraternity houses and local bars, where proof of age is rarely demanded. Breweries regard colleges as a major market, and advertise heavily in campus news-papers. Sperber believes students are drawn to drink because the atmosphere generated by intercollegiate sports turns campuses into an uninterrupted circus maximus, fueled by alcohol.

Here, too, any regular visitor to universities has seen students passing out or throwing up along fraternity row during big sports weekends. But what proportion of undergraduates succumb to this kind of binging? Of course, drinking too much is a familiar problem; and there may be less of it at schools with modest athletic programs. But a larger cause may be the scale of the campuses Sperber writes about. Most schools with nationally competitive teams are huge, like Penn State (38,583), or the University of Illinois (36,794), or the University of Florida (40,391). They are usually residential, with undergraduates away from home for the first time. And since they tend to be in smaller towns with few diversions, students find themselves confined to an impersonal campus that is dominated by high-rise dormitories and administrative offices and ringed by research institutes and laboratories they will never enter. (Indeed, at most such universities, employed adults outnumber the students.) Considering that many students are still in their teens, we should not be surprised that some cut loose with drugs or sex or drinking. Or that they do these things to make an impression or simply to fit in.

2.

The Game of Life, by William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and his Mellon Foundation associate James Shulman, is about affirmative action for athletes, as practiced by colleges, ranging from Yale and Stanford to Notre Dame and Penn State, that pride themselves on their selectivity. I don’t recall that the authors use the phrase “affirmative action,” and it isn’t listed in the index. But the book draws on the same source material that was used for The Shape of the River, the 1998 study of affirmative action of which William Bowen was also a coauthor.3 Both books are based on detailed information on some 90,000 students who attended thirty “academically selective” colleges from the 1950s through the 1980s. (Despite the common source, race is treated only tangentially in the current book.)

Some of the thirty colleges, such as Yale, Swarthmore, and Williams, take a minute fraction of their applicants, and field indifferent teams in the better-known sports. Twelve of these schools also belong to Division IA of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which expects professional-level teams and sold-out stands. Some in this group have solid academic reputations, like Stanford and Duke, and Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill. But not all the colleges discussed in the book are truly selective. Miami University of Ohio and Tulane admit three quarters of their applicants, and Kenyon and Denison accept two thirds. Even Oberlin mails 3,819 acceptances to fill a freshman class of 634, and over half of those Williams accepts end up going elsewhere.

Perhaps the most surprising findings in The Game of Life are that elite colleges put more emphasis on athletics than most of us would have suspected. When concerns arise about the role of sports, the targets tend to be Division IA schools, which recruit football and basketball stars with small regard for their academic abilities. These are the physically impressive young people we generally think of when we hear of “athletes” on campus. Shulman and Bowen use that term repeatedly, but they give it a rather different meaning. For them, “athletes” are applicants who stress their skills in a particular sport, in hopes that these abilities will lead to their admission. Nor is this wishful thinking. Admissions offices at places like Columbia and Princeton routinely forward such applications to the appropriate coaches, who match them against their teams’ needs. If they seem promising they will be “flagged”—i.e., they will have priority when the freshman class is being formed.

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.”

3.

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.

INTERCOLLEGIATE ACADEMICS: A PROPOSAL

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. 1

    See John S. Watterson, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 401–402, for figures on deaths, head injuries, and cervical spine injuries suffered by college football players.

  2. 2

    A recent survey asked 63,329 undergraduates at 276 schools to rate their education. As might be expected, smaller liberal arts colleges won the most favorable responses. The sample also included forty universities with Division IA football teams, of which only five were judged “strong performers” by academic standards. Two of the five were Sperber’s Indiana University and Duderstadt’s University of Michigan. See National Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice: The College Student Report (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2000).

  3. 3

    William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press, 1998).

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

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