Playing go for broke with their eyes shut

The Game of Life

June 1, 2001

Alan Ryan assesses the real costs of US college sports programmes

The Game of Life is written for an American audience. More exactly, it is written for American university presidents whose institutions have spent vast amounts of money on university and college athletics programmes. All have been animated by the hope that these sums will turn out to be an investment rather than money down the drain - that a successful programme will show a profit, that athletics attracts donors, that it is a way of recruiting racial minorities and that campus sports are good for the character.

To a British visitor, the central-ity of athletics on the American campus is deeply surprising. Oxford and Cambridge athletes mind about the success of their boats and their teams; but the alumni no longer notice what happens to them and the non-sporting student population hardly notices more than the alumni. With the exception of Loughborough, no university is known for its athletics programmes. In the United States it is utterly different. In what James Shulman and William Bowen call the high-profile sports - football and basketball in particular - college games are a national business. The University of Michigan football stadium holds 110,000 spectators and every seat is filled at decisive games.

In Britain, it is many years since the ability to catch a football or hold an oar was a significant advantage in university admission. In the US it is an advantage not only at the University of Michigan, which is effectively hiring professional teams - although they are not allowed to be paid in cash - but at Ivy League schools and at top-class liberal arts colleges such as Williams or Amherst. The impact of athletics programmes on the Ivy League or liberal arts institutions is, paradoxically, greater than at big state schools such as Michigan, because the percentage of the student body that plays games of some sort at university level will be very much higher - less than 5 per cent at the one and more than 30 per cent at the other.

Uninformed opinion has no difficulty knowing what to think about the scholar-athlete: many faculty members dismiss "dumb jocks" as just that; elderly alumni recall the sporting heroes of their youth and will unbutton their wallets when the football team wins and not when it loses; cynics reckon that athletics programmes are a form of affirmative action, both for black students and working-class white students; and trustees talk hopefully about the way varsity sports prepares students for the game of life and go on about the leadership quality fostered by athletics programmes. Shulman and Bowen have done the world a great service by asking some difficult questions about some obvious issues and tenaciously digging out more reliable answers than anyone hitherto has come up with.

In essence, they ask the following: how do the academic standards - measured by Sat (standard aptitude test) scores, GPA (grade point average) and rank in class - of athletes compare with those of non-athletes? To what extent is it true that athletics programmes provide an entry for minority and non-affluent students and that their numbers would drop significantly if there were no athletics programmes? How much advantage is it to be an athlete when applying to a selective school such as an Ivy League college? Is there a distinctive athletic culture inside universities and colleges? Do athletes go on to different careers when they graduate and how does that affect their future prosperity? And finally, is the game worth the candle - what does it cost colleges and universities to run a successful athletics programme, do they get their money back, or at least get something for their money they could get no other way?

Shulman and Bowen can answer these questions in the detail they do because of the astonishing database, whose creation the Mellon Foundation organised under Bowen's direction. The first offshoot of that database was The Shape of the River , the analysis of affirmative-action programmes in elite colleges and universities that Bowen published two years ago with Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. The database, known as "College and beyond", has more academic, financial, demographic and social data on the entering classes of 1951, 1976 and 1989 at 30 selective private and public colleges and universities than one could believe possible. Here, some astonishing evidence is wrung out of it - not counter-intuitive but simply surprising. For instance, athletes do a good deal better financially in their later lives than their non-sporting peers. The athletes in 1951 cohort are about 9 per cent and in the 1976 cohort some 13 per cent better paid than their peers. But the reason, oddly, is that compared with their peers' athletes are more interested in making money right back in high school. Athletes are culturally not exactly like the rest of the university population: they are more politically conservative and place being "very well off" among their most important personal goals. So they wind up in non-profit corporations less often than their peers. The sectoral decision explains most of the difference; but in one area - financial services - they do better than their non-athlete competition. The authors speculate that energy, determination and the ability to get on with others may be what accounts for that - and that these may be less decisive in the electronic age.

The three obvious questions are: does anyone (other than coaches and equipment suppliers) make money out of athletics programmes? Are academic standards unreasonably lowered to accommodate athletes? And do they bring a mysterious something to university life that is worth paying for no matter what? The answer to the first question is that it is only by closing one's eyes to infrastructure and capital costs that it is possible to believe that anyone makes money out of athletics. And the greatest drainer of resources is the sport that is rightly held up as the greatest revenue earner, namely football. Even Michigan, a powerhouse in all sports, spending $47 million a year (£33 million), of which $8 million goes on football alone, rarely shows a profit; put in the real cost of capital, and football costs a lot.

As to the athletes themselves, the story induces a certain gloom. They are pursued like mad by colleges at all levels - "highly recruited" in the euphemistic idiom of US higher education. The Ivy League and the liberal arts colleges do not offer athletics scholarships; Duke, Stanford, Michigan, all the high-performance places, do. Being an athlete improves your chances of admission by anything up to 50 per cent over a non-athlete with comparable grades and Sat scores; it beats being alumni preference and minority preference by a wide margin. But it does not particularly help minorities, and is not affirmative action by other means. On the whole, jocks are not "dumb jocks". All these universities and colleges have rules that prevent athletes being admitted if their scores are too far below the average; nonetheless, they cluster in the bottom half of the range. When American admissions policies are recommended to British universities, this is the evidence we should keep in mind; "jockocracy" rather than meritocracy is the American way.

But does running a substantial and expensive athletics programme do something less tangible for the colleges and universities that take them seriously? The answer is complicated by the fact that if any of these institutions stopped running such programmes, all hell would break loose. But the message is clear: while it is a good thing to provide young people with an opportunity to play sports, both inside their own institutions and against teams from other institutions, there are insufficient benefits to set against the way the present system seriously distorts academic life at the most selective higher-education institutions. The admissions distortions are perhaps the worst, simply because they are such an evident injustice at a time when the pressure on students to get into the best institutions is so strong, but there are plenty of other distortions. As to how change for the better can be achieved, it plainly takes a concerted effort from university presidents. From this side of the Atlantic, one can only heave a sigh of relief that here at least is one problem we do not have.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford

The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values

Author - James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen
ISBN - 0 691 07075 X
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 447

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