The Duke of Wellington once said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton—a claim that’s been echoed by boosters of college athletics pretty much ever since.
The authors of this book have a bone to pick with the Duke. They argue that many of the claims made on behalf of college sports programs—that they build character and lead to future success, support universities financially, and still fit within the tradition of the scholar-athlete—are really just platitudes. The writers collected data (there are 98 graphs and tables in this book) to test whether these things that “everybody knows” about college sports are true.
First things first: who are the authors, and why are they undermining the myths college sports fans hold dear? James Shulman is a financial and administrative officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation while William Bowen (formerly president of Princeton University) is president of the organization. Bowen was a co-author (with former Harvard president Derek Bok) and Shulman was a contributor to 1998’s The Shape of the River, which argued in favor of affirmative action in higher education.
One can’t help but wonder whether these intellectuals are itching to settle some scores with narrow-minded sports boosters. Might this book be a data-driven “revenge of the nerds”? Clearly anticipating this suspicion, the authors emphasize that they are themselves ardent sports fans and successful athletes. It becomes clear that these two are genuinely concerned with the unbalanced (and, they would claim, ultimately corrupting) role that major sports play in today’s colleges and universities.
Concern about “what’s wrong with sports today” is far from new; in fact, as the authors detail, it’s about as old as organized college sports in America. Football has been a target of do-gooders’ attention for at least a century. In just one year, 1905, 18 students died playing football, leading Northwestern, Columbia, Stanford, and NYU to ban the sport.
Public consternation over gridiron brutality was so great that Teddy Roosevelt convened a White House conference to discuss rules changes. In 1907 a wealthy Quaker heiress, horrified by the violence of football, offered Swarthmore College millions of dollars if it would agree to give up the sport. (The school’s president turned her down.) And in 1929, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching felt compelled to issue a dour report on the state of American college athletics.
In this book, the concern is not so much with safety as with wildly overstated claims about the importance of athletics to education. The authors say most people don’t realize how far down this road we’ve gone: being an athlete now confers a far greater admissions advantage than racial or legacy status. The authors believe it’s worthwhile to take a much closer look at some of the assumptions that undergird the contemporary university’s mania for sports.
The authors demolish the myth of the scholar-athlete. Shulman and Bowen’s data indicate that athletes do worse academically than the general student population—no big surprise, some might argue, since football and basketball players at prominent sports school must drag down the average. But in fact, the authors dig deeper to show that athletes fare worse academically than their classmates at all types of schools, from big Division I public universities, to Ivy League schools, to small regional colleges.
Moreover, Shulman and Bowen find that not only do “high-profile” athletes (those who play sports like football and basketball) underperform compared to their colleagues, but those who participate in “low-profile” sports like fencing, swimming, and tennis do the same. This buttresses their thesis that the divergence of college athletes has accelerated in recent decades. In 1950, high- and low-profile athletes received roughly the same grades as the overall student body. (Low-profile athletes actually did a little better.) But by 1989, “72 percent of high-profile athletes and 49 percent of lower-profile athletes ranked in the bottom third of their classes,” while only 9 percent of high-profile athletes ranked in the top third of their class.
Another sacred cow that gets led to the slaughter is the widespread notion that the increased prominence of women’s sports since the passage of Title IX has been an unalloyed good for students and schools alike. In the 1970s, women athletes were less likely than the general student population to rank in the bottom third of their classes academically. By 1989, 39 percent of them were falling into the bottom third.
Again, fans will suggest, perhaps those results are skewed by the relatively small number of women playing the one high-profile women’s sport (basketball) at nationally-prominent schools. Nope: “academic underperformance is now found among female athletes as well as male, among those who play the lower-profile sports as well as those on football and basketball teams, and among athletes playing at the Division III level as well as those playing in bowl games and competing for national championships.” Significantly, this underperformance did not disappear even when the authors accounted for race, socioeconomic status, and academic major.
What about big-time sports as a money-maker, a topic sure to interest a foundation trustee eyeing a $100,000 grant request? Surely, at this crassest level of analysis, big-time sports are worth it for schools—after all, isn’t the most common criticism of these programs that “it’s all about the money”?
The authors aren’t so sure. They offer the example of the University of Michigan, whose sports program, even after an undeniably successful year, found itself bleeding cash. Yet the authors are not Pollyannaish about the money side of the equation. Shulman and Bowen are realistic enough to recognize that large state schools have “highly consequential institutional purposes” that are served by doing well at football and basketball: winning favor and goodwill (and hopefully funding) from state legislators.
Still, there are quibbles. Many donors probably don’t care if a school loses some money on sports—they will subsidize the program for a variety of personal reasons. To sports-loving alumni it isn’t about how much merchandise is sold or how profitable the concession stands are, it’s about the excitement and fun that come from an association, however remote, with a winning team. Water-cooler bragging rights, after all, are difficult to quantify. Most development officers and university presidents seem to believe that success at basketball and football are pertinent to this calculation.
There are some odd choices in the data assembled by the authors. For instance, their sample of Division I private universities is composed of eight schools, including Duke and Georgetown. Both schools consistently field top-level basketball teams, but few knowledgeable observers would characterize them as “typical” Division I schools—indeed, sports fans frequently note the peculiarity of these schools. Another of the eight is Notre Dame—again, not exactly just another school when it comes to big-time sports. One notes a whiff of data slicing in choices like these.
Overall, the authors perform a nice balancing act by taking a serious, academic approach to their topic, while managing to hold the reader’s interest through reasonable, analytic, and jargon-free prose. Their recommendations are sensible, if not terribly radical. Schools should (surprise!) recognize the problems the authors complain of and make efforts to de-professionalize their sports programs —normalize them, really.
Today’s educators (and their funders) may or may not believe that future Waterloos will be won or lost on the playing fields of today’s colleges, but they obviously do believe that the battles for top students and alumni dollars will be. The Game of Life argues that these battles should be fought on a different field.
Tom Riley is associate editor of Philanthropy.