In November 1892, the University of Pennsylvania's football team defeated Princeton University by 6 points to 4. It was a famous victory: Penn students celebrated far into the night, smashing store windows, fighting with the police and causing general mayhem. Woodrow Wilson, then a professor at Princeton, was deeply depressed for weeks at "this overwhelming football calamity".
It is, no doubt, difficult for British readers to appreciate the intensity of emotions that accompany US university sports. A century after Penn's defeat of Princeton, that intensity has grown a hundred-fold: each weekend, hundreds of thousands attend college football games in vast stadiums, while millions more watch on television. The annual college basketball tournament in spring -appropriately called "March madness" - captures the attention of the entire nation.
University sports have now become big business, with rich rewards for success. Those universities that participate in the Bowl Championship Series for football will share $900 million (£500 million); many athletic coaches make more than $1 million annually. In the pursuit of victory, corruption and cheating have become endemic. Otherwise-reputable universities (Michigan, UCLA, Alabama and Ohio State) have been embarrassed by scandals. College athletes struggle to meet even minimal academic standards: for example, in 2003 only 15 per cent of basketball players at Arizona University managed to graduate.
Reclaiming the Game is a study of those US universities that have resisted the avalanche of commercialism that has overwhelmed college athletics.
These include, most famously, the eight Ivy League universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale), along with about 20 other elite colleges that have eschewed the lure of financial rewards for athletic success. Ivy League universities pride themselves on maintaining high academic standards: athletes at these colleges are students first and athletes second. In contrast with the others, none of the Ivy colleges provides athletic scholarships.
But William Bowen and Sarah Levin argue that even the Ivy League has now been tainted. Athletes gain admittance to Ivy League colleges with appreciably lower grades and, once they begin classes, often end up with worse academic grades than their peers. They are more likely to study the social sciences and business than the hard sciences, and they tend to separate themselves from other students.
The authors of this and similar studies are influential figures in the academic world: Bowen is president of the $4.8 billion Mellon Foundation, a major supporter of higher education. Reclaiming the Game sharpens Bowen's case, argued previously in his last book, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values , that athletics is imposing an unacceptable cost, even on elite colleges; that football and basketball players are unfairly taking up places that would be better filled by more academic applicants; and that the college experience is diminished by the large numbers of athletes within comparatively small universities. Such studies have already had an impact on the Ivy League. In 2003, it reduced the number of football players recruited and limited the time available for practice.
But is the picture quite so bleak as Bowen and Levin suppose? Are the differences between football players and other students really so great as to diminish an Ivy League education? Consider the Yale football team. Of 120 players last autumn, 82 were members of the National Honor Society at high school, 14 were class presidents, nine were student-body presidents, seven were valedictorians and three were salutatorians. In other words, Yale football players constitute an extraordinary group, clearly distinguished academically above their high-school peers.
The authors' reliance on SAT scores and college grades to measure academic success may not tell the entire story. It has become commonplace to point out that an educational experience extends beyond the classroom to include cultural and social features of campus life. So it is with college sports.
One does not have to have read F. Scott Fitzgerald's marvellous short story about Princeton football, The Bowl , to realise that football has always been an enduring and intrinsically worthwhile part of the US college experience.
Simon Baatz is visiting associate professor of history, George Mason University, Virginia, US.
Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values
Author - William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 488
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 11620 2