Big Time Sports in American Universities

  • Charles Clotfelter
  • Cambridge University Press
  • 336 pp.

A public policy expert argues for giving athletics the same respect as any university department.

Reviewed by Paul Meloan 

While serving as chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley more than a half-century ago, the late Clark Kerr famously commented that his job had come to be defined as “providing parking for the faculty, sex for the students and athletics for the alumni.”  Leaving aside questions of campus traffic and student social life, Big-Time Sports in American Universities demonstrates that Kerr’s call has been answered on campuses across the nation.

The author, Charles Clotfelter, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, undertook an academic study of the role of college athletics as a primarily commercial enterprise. He examined the 100 or so largest programs, multimillion-dollar enterprises that seemed to exist alongside their colleges without really being part of them. His chief premise seems to be that colleges need to embrace the idea that athletics are an integral part of a college’s function, even if they are not an integral part of its mission.

The distinction is significant. While thousands of smaller schools have athletic programs that are no more than physical education and recreation for students, at the largest 100 schools athletics fulfill the needs of multiple constituencies. In this environment, Clotfelter argues that giving athletics the same respect as any university department will make the enterprise more beneficial to the whole community.

Most of these enterprises are focused on men’s basketball and football. While a smattering of other sports at various colleges generate substantial income, football and basketball (primarily the former) are the engine driving the bus of big-time college sports. Seated on board are athletic administrations, coaches, athletes, super-fans and big-money donors known as “boosters,” television networks, advertisers and the keepers of all that is sacred and holy in college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Numerous books have been published that have called major college athletics a variety of unflattering names. Against a backdrop of criticism about the NCAA as exploitative of athletes and an illegal cartel, Clotfelter searches for arguments to support the idea that big-time athletics makes a contribution to society that justifies its existence.

The evidence is clear and convincing that sports programs cut across social, economic  and political divisions in a way few, if any, institutions do. Historians have long noted that college football did as much, if not more, than the court system ever could to integrate Southern colleges in the 1960s and beyond. Governor Wallace may have stood in the doorway to keep blacks from attending the University of Alabama, but it took a series of defeats at the hand of integrated teams to finally shatter the myth of white superiority in Southern schools.

Many schools remained stubborn: the University of Kentucky did not integrate its beloved basketball team until three years after losing to an integrated Texas-Western squad in the 1966 NCAA final. A year later, the integrated University of Southern California football team humiliated the all-white Alabama Crimson Tide on national television. Given the choice between fully integrating or being relegated to athletic insignificance, Southern colleges relinquished their insistence on racial hegemony.

A generation after integration, it is harder to find such obvious signs of sports-promoted social progress. Clotfelter is left with an easy case to make, that in the 100 colleges he studied, big-time sports are among the most popular aspects of life in the university and the surrounding community. There is little evidence to suggest much benefit beyond the fact that everyone seems to like sports so much. There is scant proof that sports attract a better student applicant pool, faculty or other opportunities to these schools. Even in unusual cases where sports notoriety places a school on the map (such as Boston College and Georgetown in the 1980s or Butler University today) there is not much to persuade that the same notoriety makes the school any better, just more popular.

From mission statements to university reports, virtually all colleges profess their role in society is to foster some combination of research, teaching and service to their community. There is hardly a mention that their athletic programs are the primary source of entertainment in their region. The actual expenditures betray their true goals: the largest athletic department in the United States (the University of Texas-Austin) spent $112.9 million in fiscal 2009, while the 100th largest program (Marshall University) spent $20 million.

The most damning indictment Clotfelter offers against big-time athletic programs as purely commercial enterprises is that they are not very well run. The overwhelming majority lose money year after year. Many would not exist but for regular subsidies from the school, its students or other resources. While major governments around the world have abandoned the idea of an arms race as a means of political domination, colleges with major sports programs have begun to embrace a financial race to ensure athletic domination. Clotfelter notes that coaching salaries at the top of the sports pyramid have far outstripped gains made by other faculty, even university presidents, in the last generation.

Clotfelter’s passing acknowledgement of the perils of big time sports seems almost trivial. A few pages briefly mention such problems as violation of antitrust laws, exploitation of students, illegal gambling and fixed games. These read like the list at the end of a drug advertisement of unlikely side-effects that may kill the user of an otherwise beneficial medication.

By book’s end, Clotfelter is not terribly persuasive that big-time college sports have much to offer beyond the fact that large numbers of people like them.

Paul Meloan is a director at Aegis Wealth Management in Bethesda, Maryland, and blogs on issues of personal wealth at paulmeloan.posterous.com. He also yells at the television when his University of Michigan Wolverines are losing.

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