Academics and athletics

by John Quiggin on April 27, 2005

Via Rafe Champion at Catallaxy, I found this NYRoB review of a book Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values on the vexed topic of sport in US colleges. Bowen and Levin view the US system, where colleges use all sorts of inducements to recruit students who will play in their sporting teams, as entirely deplorable, and spend a fair bit of time on its various pernicious effects, but don’t really seem to have much of a solution. The reviewer, Benjamin DeMott has a more favorable view, pointing among other things to the fact that sports provide a route to college for working-class kids who wouldn’t otherwise get in, but doesn’t have a very effective response to the central point made by Bowen and Levin about the negative effects of a group of students who are mostly well below the average in ability, not academically motivated and are effectively employed full-time in their sporting careers in any case. Proposals to restore the ideal of the amateur student athlete have gone nowhere, and it seems unlikely that the radical approach of getting large numbers of colleges to pull out of the game altogether will do any better.

I’d like to suggest an alternative that is probably still too radical, but would not challenge the existence of college sports, and would overcome at least some of the problems aired by Bowen and Levin along with many others. College should recruit athletes as they do now, but let them defer all their classes for the four(?) years they play for the college team (unless they get cut earlier on). At the end of that time, a minority will make it into the professional leagues and big money, and won’t need a college degree. The rest will no longer have sporting commitments or the illusory hope of sporting riches. At this point, the college should give them their deferred education, with an explicit recognition that they are likely to need more help than the average student.

This seems like an improvement all round to me, but no doubt there’s lots of things I haven’t thought of, so I’ll let better-informed readers set me straight.

{ 53 comments }

1

Brian Weatherson 04.27.05 at 7:56 am

It isn’t clear why we’d need to have atheletes sitting out classes for all four years. Most sports are basically confined to one semester. (Basketball is something of an exception, but it could probably be tweaked to adjust.) If atheletes had the option of deferring all the classes from the semesters their sport was on, they’d have two years to make up at the end.

I have mixed views about the athletic situation, but it’s hard to comment without saying too much about one’s own past situations. I haven’t had any troubles at Cornell, despite having quite a few student atheletes, and I suspect it’s rather hard to make generalisations across the board here. But I think allowing more deferrals is something that should be on the table.

2

Joshua W. Burton 04.27.05 at 7:57 am

Isn’t it fundamentally condescending (with a fine undertone of racism to boot) to treat this as an education problem, rather than a labor contract problem? If college athletes were paid anything like what they are worth to their schools, their need for a college degree would fall away, and their ability to obtain one anywhere they wanted it would take care of itself.

What’s needed is free agency, a player’s union, and direct commercial sponsorship. The schools are already selling their brands to national television markets, and paying their coaches ten times as much as their chancellors. But the NCAA keeps the athletes who make it happen in serfdom: a good college quarterback is as famous as a rock star, but as overworked and underpaid as a Supreme Court clerk, for a much less predictable payoff. Let Nike put him through (any!) college afterwards, if he wants to bother with it for some reason.

3

des von bladet 04.27.05 at 8:29 am

Joshua: Are you proposing a total divorce of the sports business and college with the minor tweak that sporting franchises may choose to license the name of a university?

It works for me (admittedly in Yoorp, where there is no compelling reason to have a point of view on this at all) except possibly for the name thing.

4

Steve LaBonne 04.27.05 at 8:30 am

The real solution is to make the NFL and NBA pay for their own farm systems, as baseball does. Why are universities generously providing this service for them?

5

KM 04.27.05 at 8:30 am

Brian,

The good athletes practice all year round. The people I know in the various sports teams even practice 4-5 hours a day or more when they are redshirting (taking a year off).

I’m with Joshua. These people are old enough to be working, and probably should be, it’s the NCAA who keeps them in serfdom. If college is important, it’ll still be important once they have a career ending injury, and they could do with having some money in the bank when that happens.

6

alkali 04.27.05 at 8:34 am

Two characteristics of the college athletic/scholarship market:

1) Colleges can agree with one another to limit athlete compensation (e.g., by not paying athletes in addition to tuition, room and board).

2) Colleges can take away an athlete’s scholarship (e.g., if the athlete is injured, cut from the team or loses interest in playing).

It would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen to college athletics if colleges had to choose between these alternatives: that is, you can agree to limit athlete compensation, but you can’t take away the four-year scholarship; or you can revoke scholarships, but you can’t agree with other colleges to limit athlete compensation.

7

Joshua W. Burton 04.27.05 at 8:47 am

_Joshua: Are you proposing a total divorce of the sports business and college with the minor tweak that sporting franchises may choose to license the name of a university?_

No, the four year up-or-out rule (fresh talent each year) and the enthusiastic talent scouting by local alumni are both worth keeping. I’m simply calling for the abolition of certain rules that heavily constrain the powerless but closely watched players, to the benefit of the franchise holders and their various shadowy partners.

8

Sam TH 04.27.05 at 8:54 am

Having actually read the book, the review is pretty bad. First, the complaint that the “real causes” of increased emphasis on sports are alumni pressure is off base, as the authors show empirically in the book (and in the earlier book mentioned). Alumni donations are not closely related to sports success.

Second, the major complain of the review is that Bowen and Levin don’t share the reviewer’s view that people who are *very* good at sports have a unique perspective that outweighs all the problems the book documents. The reviewer is claiming that merely playing sports (and even doing reasonably well) is not enough, we need to admit the best athletes around. This premise is basically unargued for, which is probably because it’s nonsense. The reviewer even discusses the benifits college professors can get by weekend sporting activities, but insists that elite institutions need elite athletes in their student body.

Commenters should also note that this discussion is not about athletes who have any chance of being paid for their sports (except maybe last year’s Harvard quarterback). It focuses solely on elite liberal arts colleges (Williams, Swarthmore, etc) and Ivy League universities.

9

ktheintz 04.27.05 at 8:57 am

Why are universities generously providing this service for them?

Because, for a public mega-university like Michigan or Texas, sports creates a sense of community, albeit one that is plainly ersatz. But these schools have undergraduate populations of 30,000 and greater, and the educational process might seem (more) alienating and factory-like were it not for all the fake pageantry.

10

Joshua W. Burton 04.27.05 at 9:08 am

_Because, for a public mega-university like Michigan or Texas, sports creates a sense of community, albeit one that is plainly ersatz._

Oh, and, er, because it pays the salaries of a few Nobel laureates who would be otherwise unemployable. (When UT hired Weinberg away from Harvard, their chancellor actually came out and said he wanted to “buy a physics department his football team could be proud of.”

The idea that the colleges are doing an altruistic service, rather than clinging jealously to a racket, is part of the smokescreen.

11

Keith 04.27.05 at 9:30 am

The end problem is still not addressed: My tuition as a student still goes to pay for a bunch of jocks who get a free ride while I have to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans.

It anoys the shit out of me that, as a non-athlete (read: nerd) I have to support the same dickheads through college who beat me up in high school.

12

ktheintz 04.27.05 at 9:41 am

After RTFA: Sam is right, btw, the book and review confine themselves to elite private colleges. I had thought those schools had mostly gotten out of the big-time sports business, but I’m only judging from not seeing much of them on ESPN.

Joshua, no doubt those ulterior motives exist; my point was, the ostensible, best rationale (the esprit de corps thing) is pretty paltry itself.

13

steve kyle 04.27.05 at 9:44 am

It seems you are implicitly only thinking about large universities but the problem is much more acute at small colleges. The number of athletes it takes to fill out a football or basketball squad is a relatively small percentage at a largeuniversity but can be huge at a small college. I am an alum of Swarthmore College which is small (under 2000) and which likes to think of itself as very good at academics. The college recently found itself reserving more than a third of all incoming freshman slots for men for athletes. Ultimately this was impossible to reconcile with the academic standards – adhering more strictly to academic standards was impossible for the sports programs (esp. football) because it is just plain dangerous for smaller less skilled players to get bashed by overgrown steroidal opponents every weekend.

The solution was to dump the football program entirely. However, this solution wont work most places. Even at Swarthmore many alums including some of the largest donors threw a hissy fit which continues to this day. It was hard for the administration to resist this pressure and I suspect it would be impossible most places.

In response to Keith above who doesnt want to subsidize the dickheads who beat him up in high school it is certainly true that things like football are subsidized by the rest of the college. Unfortunately, many of the people who do the subsidizing are alums who are former dickheads themselves.

14

Harry 04.27.05 at 10:10 am

I thought that very few college athletics programs, including very few football and basketball teams actually made any money for their colleges. Joshua, can you point to evidence to the contrary?
I’ve had a lot of college athletes in classes. Some are diligent, others are not. The conditions of their scholarships make scholarship impossible for them unless they are quite extraordinarily academically talented. My university, like all other universities I know of, has classes for them in which they learn nothing but get A’s (not my classes, I’d add). Other students get cuaght up in these classes. I’m very happy to give genuinely disadvantaged students full scholarships — but athletics scholarships are a wicked snare and delusion which distort high school life, and support (few) disadvantaged students who are perforce unable to take academic advantage.

What’s Jon Mandle’s view about all this?

15

paul 04.27.05 at 10:21 am

As ktheintz and sam th say, this discussion thread deals mostly with issues that Bowman dealt with in his first book, (the game of life), not the book under review. One shortcoming of Reclaiming the Game, from my perspective as a parent of a recruited athlete, is that it focuses almost entirely on 2 sports, football and men’s basketball. It appears that at these academically elite schools: other sports are not distorting the social or academic atmosphere on campus; and the athletes are not massively underperforming with regard to academics, at least as would be predicted by prior performance (HS grades and rank, SAT/ACT scores). It also appears that there are still distortions in admissions, if only because of the high fraction of athletes among admitted candidates, relative to the overall applicant pool. But the book does not touch on these issues for these athletes for me to be confident in these statements.

So this book ends up more as a (justifiable IMHO) diatribe against college football and basketball and their consequences for these schools, than a full discussion of the role and effect of sports at these schools.

16

Joshua W. Burton 04.27.05 at 10:34 am

_I thought that very few college athletics programs, including very few football and basketball teams actually made any money for their colleges. Joshua, can you point to evidence to the contrary?_

Official henhouse stats here, from the fox itself.

http://www.ncaa.org/news/2002/20020902/active/3918n01.html

Even by the NCAA’s reckoning, more than two thirds of Div I-A football programs are profitable. But it’s hard to take these numbers at face value, unless you believe that the typical program finds it reasonable to pay their top three (sometimes one) coaches their entire profit.

The fundraising activities of a university and its sports program are closely intertwined, and handshake agreements only bring NCAA censure when they involve compensation to the players. Anyway, I’m not asking for a guaranteed handout; let the players bargain (and re-bargain, and unionize) freely, and let’s find out what the universities think they are worth. If buying football stars at fair market value bankrupts the women’s fencing team, maybe the school can’t afford football.

17

Rob 04.27.05 at 10:48 am

Money for atheltics almosty always stay with athletics. It supports other non revenue sports and it also tends to eat uop a very large portion of alumni giving so they can have luxury boxes at the stadiums. Instead of getting huge goverment handouts like other sports do, college atheltics gets smalelr handouts while keeping costs down but virtually ensurfing the athletes (especially football where there is no choice to try to get into a rpoleague out fo high school).

18

tad brennan 04.27.05 at 11:30 am

I’m struck by this phrase from Harry in #14 above

“The conditions of their scholarships make scholarship impossible”

There should be a special word for cases of ambiguity in which two of the senses are actually opposed to each other (e.g. “sanction” = approve vs. “sanction” = punish). Maybe there is one.

In any case, I never thought “scholarship” would turn out to be an instance.

19

lisa 04.27.05 at 11:51 am

Colleges with sports programs should offer majors in those sports. Football Sciences, or Baskeball Theory. Students compete for scholarships based on performance, just as students for academic scholarships compete based on grades. Which is what happens today. No one gets a football scholarship based on grades. Classes would be ‘How to read/negotiate a contract’, ‘Coaching theory’, ‘Sports nutrition’. Etc. When an Accounting major or Math major graduates they compete for jobs, based on academic performance and internships and other experience. When a Football Sciences major graduates they compete for NFL jobs based on their college performance as well. If they get the NFL job, great. If not they have to figure out what to do. Just as the accounting major who graduates with a 1.5 probably has to find something besides accounting to do. There is no requirement that an athlete with a sports scholarship major in a sport. With most academic scholarships there is no requirement as to the course of college study. Student athletes can major in anything they want. But the expectation is if they major in a non-sport they complete all the required class work. An accounting major can work and intern in their field of study and earn all they can during school. So if there was a Football major some sort of ‘payment as intern’ could be worked out for the student athletes. Make all the current underground subsidies and booster club money above board and transparent. And it could be made pay for performance, just as with accounting. A good summer intern will make more than a bad one. The star player makes more than the one on the bench. The fund raising and booster clubs would remain the same. But how the money is spent would be more transparent. A good coach and a good program will continue to attract the best high school players, just as it does today. Because that program offers the best chance at making the pros. Just as an engineering degree from MIT offers the best chance at future employment in that field. So the whole recruitment process wouldn’t change much either. The issue with all these so called student athletes is we all operate under the pretense that they are there to get an education, and as a by product if they are lucky they might move into pro-sports. Why not just call it as it really is? Some of them ( perhaps the majority ) are there not to get what we consider the traditional education, but to demonstrate their ability to move to the pros. And to learn more about how to play their sport along the way. I don’t necessarily see this is a bad thing. The engineering student is doing the same thing. Learning about engineering and probably working in the field durning breaks. We just see it differently. And has been pointed out previously in the comments, many of the student athletes do work very hard at their sport. We just don’t see hours spent working out or practicing the same as we see hours spent at the library. So. Just create majors in the sports and treat it just like any other field of study. And the same rules for getting a job after college apply. If you are good at it you get the job, if not you have to find something else to do.

20

mw 04.27.05 at 12:06 pm

There seems to be a problem here of conflating men’s football and basketball with all of college athletics. In all other sports (in particular, all of women’s sports), scholarship athletes tend to graduate at a higher rate than the student body as a whole.

That’s not to say, though, that it makes any sense to me for a university to subsidize the education of, say, field hockey players at the expense of the rest of the student body, taxpayers, and/or exploited football and basketball players who are paid nothing for the vast sums their televised exploits generate. But most student athletes are unreasonably subsidized rather than taken advantage of.

21

Justin 04.27.05 at 12:28 pm

One possible consequence of John Quiggin’s proposal is that it would probably have bad effects for those athletes who are capable and interested in taking their education seriously while still playing. If you create the option of deferring classes, you’d potentially create a situation where coaches would put pressure on those kids to do so. It seems like the kids who best fit the model of student-atheletes would be in the worst shape in that regard: they’re interested in getting an education, they’re not interested in going pro, and they really need that full scholarship. Of course, the type of students who can play football or basketball while doing well in school might be small enough that this effect is negligible.

Also, it may be hard to estimate the impact of sports on alumni donations. At a lot of schools, sports are an important part of the atmosphere that makes people say college was the best time of their lives.

22

jet 04.27.05 at 12:49 pm

http://web1.ncaa.org/app_data/apr2/522_2004_apr.pdf

So sports bring in more money than they cost on average and student athelets have a higher graduation rate.

Ohio State atheltics makes the school about $100 (44.5% football) million a year.
Penn State about $70(64.5% football) million.
Smallest football team in the big 10 still brought in 13.6 million.

It isn’t academic departments paying for college sports, it is college sports paying for academic departments. While also providing higher quality students than the average.

Wow, and I got such a different impression of the situation from reading all these comments, how odd.

23

Brian Weatherson 04.27.05 at 12:57 pm

Jet, if you are believing the NCAA’s statistics on how much NCAA sports add to colleges, you aren’t exactly displaying much sceptical judgment. Fox’s statistics on the henhouse indeed.

I’ve never seen a study that showed that sports teams are good for the university’s business without making fairly generous-looking assumptions about the gains to alumni donation from sports and the advertising value of having a sporting team. Maybe there really is that much value though. It would be nice to see *independent* statistics.

24

K Guilfoy 04.27.05 at 1:16 pm

The problem is not who pays for the athletic department. No doubt top schools have athletic departments that bring in a substantial sum, while for those division 1 schools without elite athletic programs the opposite is true. Accounting on this subject is closely akin to magic. I have taught at both kinds of school. The common problem is that the student athlete is essentially a willing slave. The year round workload placed on these kids, even at the lowest levels of division 1, is extreme. It is simply impossible for them to get an education. After 4 years they leave with a meaningless degree and probably a limp. I have often argued that universities should provide free tuition for athletes until they finish their degree. The school exploits them for 4 years but at the end they are guaranteed the opportunity to earn a meaningful degree.

In a more abstract philosophical vein I wonder if high school athletes would be good Rawlsians. Would they opt for the least worst outcome? Knowing there is very little chance of making it in the pros would they opt for top academic schools for the guaranteed education? If so could any school in Florida remain viable?

25

y81 04.27.05 at 1:24 pm

It should be noted that at the Ivy League schools, athletes are not given scholarships on terms different than those offered to other students. So the tuition-paying students are not subsidizing athletes at those colleges. However, certainly young people are admitted on account of their athletic ability who would not otherwise be admitted, which means that someone else will not have a place.

Then again, going to Yale doesn’t prevent you from turning into “human scum,” so it probably doesn’t matter who gets to go.

26

Cranky Observer 04.27.05 at 1:25 pm

> Proposals to restore the ideal of the amateur
> student athlete have gone nowhere, and it seems
> unlikely that the radical approach of getting
> large numbers of colleges to pull out of the game
> altogether will do any better.

Or you could just attend a Division III school. I remember one basketball game that my university was losing pretty badly at the half (to MIT); then the Electrical Engineering 250 midterm let out, our two star players suited up, and we (well, they) rallied to win. The professor had been asked by the Dean to reschedule the exam; he refused and no one though that was odd or anything to complain about.

Cranky

27

George 04.27.05 at 1:45 pm

John Q, that’s an outstanding idea. You’re probably right, though, that it’s in the snowball/hell category.

And without getting into a long, pseudo-scholarly comment that won’t be read anyway, let me just say that college sports are one of the things that make America great. The aggregate benefits far outweigh the flaws.

PS: this also seems a decent place to relay the story of Russell White, a running back for my Cal Bears in the early 1990s. The son of former USC tailback (and Heisman winner) Charles White, R. White was highly recruited out of high school but had to sit out a year due to academic ineligibility (ie, he didn’t meet the NCAA’s minimum standards when he entered college). But when he did start playing, he was a star. I still remember the first time he touched a live football in Memorial Stadium, he ran a kickoff back 90+ yards to score against the Miami Hurricanes. For us long-suffering Cal fans, that was like taking crack. (I’m guessing here.)

Russell didn’t stay a star, though: he lost a step every year he was in school and did not go on to the NFL. However, in his sophomore year, one of the academic mentors assigned to him by the school discovered that he was dyslexic. He was put on a special prgram for the learning disabled, and his grades improved markedly. He graduated with a degree in some liberal arts subject.

I’ve no idea how many Russell Whites are out there, guys who lost once-promising athletic careers but took advantage of the university experience when they had the chance. I’d certainly rather be him than some kid drafted out of high school to play baseball but washed out of the minors in their 20s.

28

Scholz 04.27.05 at 1:48 pm

I think it would be interesting to see a break down of the costs. Frequently some ‘costs’ are not included in the cost benefit analysis. Frequently tuition waivers; coach salaries; travel expenses (for away games and recruitment); construction and maintenance of stadiums, gyms, etc..; phone and mailings; public relations/legal/accounting fees related to the sports programs; are not included in calculating the costs of a program. It might be difficult, but it is not impossible. I think there are also more subtle losses that are not calculated, if major sports programs do not graduate successful graduates they are less likely to contribute to their alma mater. I read somewhere (sorry for no reference) that the biggest determiner of a colleges endowment is the wealth of its graduates. If you graduates, or non-graduates are under-employed, then they will not likely have a lot of wealth.
My present employer has tried to increase noteriety and enrollment through several sports programs, the results have not been a vast increase in our endowment, quite the contrary.

29

Ophelia Benson 04.27.05 at 2:17 pm

“The reviewer, Benjamin DeMott has a more favorable view, pointing among other things to the fact that sports provide a route to college for working-class kids who wouldn’t otherwise get in,”

The trouble with that is, why should working-class kids who wouldn’t otherwise get in, get in on the basis of such an irrelevant factor? Wouldn’t it be better if working class kids who wouldn’t otherwise get in, got in on the basis of having inquiring minds, being full of intellectual curiosity, stuff like that? It just seems stupid (or else disingenuous) to think it’s a good thing to make the qualifying factor be something so arbitrary and beside the point. Might as well let in working class kids who have a mole in the shape of a garden fork on their left buttock.

30

Harry 04.27.05 at 2:42 pm

Ophelia,

it’s worse than you suggest. At least if people with moles in the shape of a garden fork etc were given preference that would not skew the incentives in high school, prompting high schools to devote lots of resources to athletics instead of academics, thus diminishing the supply of working class kids with well-educated and enquiring minds. It might breed calls for high schools to do anti-cosmetic surgery, perhaps, but the ludicrousness of that would at least make it easier to combat politically.

31

Uncle Kvetch 04.27.05 at 3:20 pm

Wouldn’t it be better if working class kids who wouldn’t otherwise get in, got in on the basis of having inquiring minds, being full of intellectual curiosity, stuff like that? It just seems stupid (or else disingenuous) to think it’s a good thing to make the qualifying factor be something so arbitrary and beside the point.

Ah. It took 30 comments, but somebody finally hit the nail on the head. (Actually, Steve Labonne came pretty damn close upthread, but still.) Brava, Ophelia.

32

bza 04.27.05 at 3:21 pm

It isn’t academic departments paying for college sports, it is college sports paying for academic departments. While also providing higher quality students than the average.

As already noted, statistics from the NCAA should be treated with skepticism. But even taking those at face value, your conclusion is wrong, becasuse the academic progress of student athletes is heavily monitored. (The univeristy at which I teach has an internal unit dedicated to that purpose and nothing else.) When athletes do badly in a class, they’re assigned tutors. Someone from “academic support services” or whatever the university in question calls that office plays mother hen and makes sure they hand in all their assignments. Since there’s significant institutional pressure to preserve an athlete’s academic eligibility, people other than the student see to it that the student does not fail the class.

This results in higher rates of graduation, sure, but no one would call that academic success, let alone say that those students are better than average. Thus I find that athletes rarely fail my classes, but they’re way over-represented among the C’s when it comes time to assign final grades. (I’d be interested to see a plot of GPA for student athletes who graduate versus the general student body. I bet the left-hand tail for athletes is much fatter.)

33

jet 04.27.05 at 3:39 pm

Recently a blogger wrote about the Chinese riots against Japan. While discussing the damage he took a few sentences out to mock the Chinese ability to throw rocks through Japanese corporate windows, saying the average Chinese rioter’s rock throwing ability was seriously below par.

And that is why collegiate sports are so important. We can’t have a country full of physical incompetants without the ability to even throw a rock through a window. I mean come on, isn’t giving up a serious amounts of academic progress worth not having a country full of Chinese rock throwers?

34

foo 04.27.05 at 4:10 pm

It should be noted that at the Ivy League schools, athletes are not given scholarships on terms different than those offered to other students. So the tuition-paying students are not subsidizing athletes at those colleges.

y81: I know (since I went to one of these “Ivy League” schools, and have seen first-hand the admissions and financial-aid process) that this is the party-line ….

But it’s absolutely not true. Even Ivy League schools give “sports scholarships,” albeit in underhanded ways. First of all, plenty of athletes in prominent sports programs on campus get “sweet” financial aid deals. These aren’t outright grants, but “somehow” their financial need is consistently assessed to be higher than non-athletes; even the federal formulae for calculating these things can be massaged. And since the college “guarantees” that it will “meet your need”…

Furthermore, once they got on campus, my tuition funded plenty of continuing subsidies: special exclusive training facilities, travel perks, tutors if necessary, the whole thing.

It happens everywhere, even in the lower (multi-A) reaches of Division I football and such.

I never really thought of it as my tuition subsidizing the athletes. Rather, I was irked because I felt my tuition was subsidizing a rather elaborate and ongoing fundraising effort, a program to squeeze money out of cranky alumni. Sort of like an elaborate Ponzi scheme that unfolded over the course of decades. Football, and a few other sports, were obviously the centerpiece of this effort.

This impression has not abated since I graduated and joined the ranks of the “alumni.” It’s a mess.

35

CalDem 04.27.05 at 4:12 pm

My experience of this is interesting, I went to an elite east coast prep school that regularly recruited ringers to play football and some other sports. often they came in as fifth year seniors and just played one year. The reason they came was that if they could maintain decent grades than ivy league schools would admit them, even if there grades and scores were far lower than regular admittees. this was back in the 80s and I bet the problem is worse now.

That review was completely incoherent. the only worthwhile point was about class differences. and I bet that doesn’t hold up, especially for lower level college athletics upper class athletes get a huge leg up via training camps and private training. At the Div I level this doesn’t overcome talent, but at the ivy league or elite small schools it sure does.

36

james 04.27.05 at 4:23 pm

The issue of athletics programs bringing in large sums of money is really only a NCAA Div I issue. NCAA D2 schools and NAIA have scholarships for athletes but rarely make any money. NCAA D3 schools do not.

For many, sports and sport facilities is a big part of the quality of life on college campuses.

Having played against the MIT mens basketball team, I have a hard time believing they could ever beat anyone.

37

George 04.27.05 at 4:37 pm

Ophelia and Uncle K: I admire your sentiments but I think you’re missing something. Athletic ability is not “arbitrary and beside the point” any more than, say, acting or musical ability. If it’s fair to take an applicant’s skills as a flutist into account, why not his/her abilities as a diver, or runner, or point guard? I’d guess that the average Division I student-athlete, in any sport, works far harder at their craft than the average non-athletic scholarship student does at theirs.

There’s no question that the system is out of whack — apparently even at elite schools, let alone the football factories. (I’m under no illusion that aggregate musical scholarships are comparable to aggregate athletic scholarships.) But if you start from the premise that athletics has *no role* in the university experience, you’re not likely to come to a solution that works in the real world.

38

Cranky Observer 04.27.05 at 4:46 pm

> Having played against the MIT mens basketball
> team, I have a hard time believing they could ever
> beat anyone.

This was quite a while ago (“I am old. My sight grows dim”), but note that our side was losing with just the Arts & Sciences guys – we didn’t turn things around until the Engineers arrived!

Cranky

39

Uncle Kvetch 04.27.05 at 5:34 pm

But if you start from the premise that athletics has no role in the university experience

Hello strawman, my old friend.

40

Ophelia Benson 04.27.05 at 7:39 pm

“At least if people with moles in the shape of a garden fork etc were given preference that would not skew the incentives in high school,”

Yeah, true, Harry. And it also wouldn’t do so much to foster anti-intellectualism at the universities themselves. That would be nice…

Thanks, Uncle Kvetch. In case you want further reading, there’s a collection of articles partly on this subject in an In Focus at Butterflies and Wheels, that I put together I think around the time Bowen’s first book on this subject came out.

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/infocusprint.php?num=19&subject=Higher Education and its Discontents

41

paul 04.27.05 at 7:42 pm

I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping…

(Continuation of immediately previous post)

42

paul 04.27.05 at 7:44 pm

oops, ophelia cut in front of me. 41 was a continuation of 39.

43

Andrew 04.27.05 at 8:24 pm

There is a correlation between sport and alumni donations. The UW here in Seattle hired a new coach, and there was an article in the local newspaper about how much money the school has raised since that time compared to previous times. They also mentioned that USC has recieved five times the donations in the last two years, where they won championships in football, as the 2 years previous. That is a big difference.

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cornellian 04.28.05 at 12:21 am

Now, this is an issue near and dear to my heart being a quasi D-I athlete (I have some nasty issues with knees, which if i were a girl would have just left me not racing, but as a guy has me off the roster…Title IX is not my friend)

Alot of non-athletes don’t grasp the time commitment that doing well at a sport entails. There is the obvious commitment of being at practice, including the logistics of changing before and after, shwoering, icing, getting taped etc. There are also other “hidden” time losses, such as an athelete can’t keep a normal college stuentd hours, you need your sleep.

As for the notion that athletes arn’t all that bright or dedicated, there are some kids who fit that, but it is unfair to catagorize all athletes with that. In my class of about 30 physics majors there are 4 varsity athletes (1 track, 1 lacross, 2 crew, none of which are joke sports here) and the team I am most familair with, the mens cross coutnrty distance crews, is predominatly engineers, which is also not a slouch program here.

On a differnt vein of this, college is about the only place to develop younger tallent in the more obscure sports like crew or track. Unless you were enough of a stand out in high school to get picked up by a sponser or are independently wealthy, college is about the only venue for these sports in this country.

I apolgozie for this being rambling, it is 1:30am local time and i acctully fell asleep about an hour ago

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J. Michael Neal 04.28.05 at 12:34 am

There is a correlation between sport and alumni donations. The UW here in Seattle hired a new coach, and there was an article in the local newspaper about how much money the school has raised since that time compared to previous times. They also mentioned that USC has recieved five times the donations in the last two years, where they won championships in football, as the 2 years previous. That is a big difference.

Were these donations to the academic programs, or just the athletic ones? In terms of trying to assess the value of athletics to the rest of the school, that’s a key distinction.

Interestingly, I think that some of the above posters have come close to the solution, without quite seeing it: treat scholarship athletes as employees of the university. Pretty clearly, that’s what they are. NCAA rules forbid awarding scholarships for four years, instead requiring that they be for one year only, renewable. This rather clearly establishes that the athletes are working for compensation, and that job retention depends upon performance. In other words, they are athletes.

Of course, despite this rather obvious fact, the courts have repeatedly held that athletes aren’t employees. The NCAA has fought this very hard. They’ll tell you that the reason is because they think athletes should be amateurs and not paid, but the real reason is that they don’t want athletics to be subject to labor laws. Workers comp alone would be a nightmare.

If this is ever changed, and athletes are found to be employees, expect the entire world of NCAA athletics to change. I suspect that you would see a small number of large schools break off and form super leagues, while the rest of them return to real amateur athletics. The costs of treating all scholarship athletes as employees would simply be too prohibitive.

As an aside, the NCAA’s fights to keep athletes from being considered employees simply put them over a different barrel. As part of their legal arguments, they had to declare that making money is not a significant motivation for NCAA sports. (Snicker at will.) Where this left them, though, was having no outs when it came to Title IX. Whenever you hear someone say that football should be exempt from Title IX considerations because it makes the money that supports the rest of the athletics program, you don’t even need to get into a discussion of whether this is true. Simply point out that the NCAA itself argued, in court, that this was not true. They don’t get to have it both ways.

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John Quiggin 04.28.05 at 3:53 am

I’m not up on the detailed legalities of the situation, but my idea would be that athletes ought to be employees while they play for the college, with the degree as deferred compensation. So I agree with all the commentators who’ve made this point.

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jet 04.28.05 at 7:35 am

In an for instance that the current system isn’t all evil, look at Oklahoma University. The school gets a new coach who revives OU’s football team. Around the same time huge amounts of donation (and booster club) money start flowing in. And around this time the school starts an academic revival with a new museum, library, major law school refurbishing (for its ranking, it is easily the best buy in the US now at $2k/semester), strengthening of the different colleges, etc etc ad naseum.

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George 04.28.05 at 12:04 pm

Not to be pissy, uncle k, but that’s almost precisely what you said! Or at least what ophelia said — that athletic ability has as much to do with college admissions as a butt blemish — and you agreed with. Maybe you meant something different?

Anyway, as grist for the mill, let me throw in those occasional studies that show that football players are generally the smartest among the three major American sports. Because they are required to go to college, while baseball and basketball players are not? That would be a hard claim to defend, but it’s interesting.

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Jeff 04.28.05 at 2:58 pm

Reason not the need my friends; college sports, especially football and basketball are an integral part of American culture (and aren’t we supposed to respect other cultures?). The pernicious effects matter not; I adore the NFL though I know of the horrible permanent physical costs extracted from the players (every NFL player, no matter how high the salary, is underpaid). College sports are always in need of reform, but they are a wonderful part of who we are.

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JR 04.28.05 at 4:01 pm

Yale has over 100 men on its football team- that’s 4 percent of the male undergraduate body of 5000. Since the Yale football team couldn’t beat the Lubbock High varsity on a good day, this means that Yale is reserving 4 percent of its male slots for guys who can’t play football AND can’t do the academic work either.

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Uncle Kvetch 04.28.05 at 4:17 pm

Not to be pissy, uncle k, but that’s almost precisely what you said! Or at least what ophelia said—that athletic ability has as much to do with college admissions as a butt blemish—and you agreed with. Maybe you meant something different?

Ophelia said that athletics said that she saw no reason why athletic ability should be considered in university admissions. You leapt from there to “But if you start from the premise that athletics has no role in the university experience….” Apples & oranges. I’ve got no problem with athletics being a part of the “university experience”–there’s always intramurals, for instance. (I’m not being facetious in saying that, btw.)

What’s more, on reflection, I’m not prepared to argue that athletic achievement (NB: not athletic ability) should have no role in university admissions, and I’m not sure that that’s what Ophelia was really arguing either. Achievement is achievement, whether it’s in sports, music, the fine arts, writing, community service, political activism, etc., and it can be seen as indicative of certain desirable personal qualities.

But treating athletic achievement as just one more variety of achievement among many, of course, is a million miles away from where things stand right now. So if I was pissy, it was because I bristled at another part of your post:

If it’s fair to take an applicant’s skills as a flutist into account, why not his/her abilities as a diver, or runner, or point guard?

Please, George. When the flutist gets a 4-year all-expenses paid scholarship, when he/she is granted all kinds of extra academic assistance (see BZA’s post above) because our star flutist cannot be allowed to fail before the big concert!–then this comparison might begin to make sense.

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George 04.28.05 at 5:41 pm

Fair enough, though the university experience is presumably strongly controlled by who is let in by admissions, so maybe it’s not such a leap. “Lemons and oranges,” maybe. Your last point is right on target, of course. I thought I said the same thing.

You know, the great thing about blogs is not that people with disparate viewpoints can meet and discuss; it’s that people with similar viewpoints can argue!

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Uncle Kvetch 04.28.05 at 8:51 pm

Well alrighty then. We’re on more or less the same wavelength, and I apologize for being pissy.

I realize that I do tend to get a bit defensive about this issue because it’s one of those things where my own opinion lies way, waaaay out there on the lunatic fringe (by U.S. standards, anyway)–viz., I really don’t see the point of “college sports” at all, beyond the intramural level. My impression, for what it’s worth, was that a number of studies had pretty thoroughly debunked the whole “they bring in money” argument. If anyone want to play sports at a more “serious” level than sheer recreation, the opportunities for them to do so should be made available…but what any of that has to do with a university education just escapes me entirely. “School spirit” is a pretty vague and ephemeral justification, given the very real negative effects of sports-mania on college campuses.

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