Inside Higher Ed

‘Big-Time Sports in American Universities’
March 25, 2011
By Doug Lederman

As a leading economist of education, Charles T. Clotfelter has brought data-driven analysis to many key topics surrounding American schools and colleges: the impact of K-12 desegregation, teacher compensation, federal tax policy and charitable giving, and cost escalation in higher education, among many others. Yet he, like many other social scientists, had until recently largely ignored a highly visible element of today’s (and yesterday’s, for that matter) campus environment: the highly commercialized endeavor of big-time athletics.

In his new book, Big-Time Sports in American Universities (Cambridge University Press), Clotfelter, the Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of Public Policy Studies and Professor of Economics and Law at Duke University, seeks to remedy the scholarly inattention to athletics. Clotfelter sets himself an ambitious goal: using an analytical, data-rich approach to the questions of why many leading American universities embrace big-time, commercial athletics (while failing to fully acknowledge the size of its footprint), and whether the marriage is a good one for institutions and society as a whole.

Beyond the abundant but imperfect publicly available data about finances and graduation rates, though, he produces his own. He collects information on how much of The New York Times coverage of various universities focuses on their sports programs (much greater at institutions with big-time sports programs than at their peers without them), for instance, and mines a forthcoming study to show that undergraduates at one group of highly selective universities with commercial sports programs spend less time on academics than do their counterparts at institutions without top-level programs.

In true economist’s fashion, he asks: Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Clotfelter’s answers, he acknowledges, are something less than fully satisfactory, and the book uncovers ample evidence for fanatics and haters of big-time sports alike. Ultimately, though, his is a call for honesty: about the compromises that colleges make in the name of commercialized sports, yes, but also about what he characterizes as “the actual importance that this form of commercial entertainment plays in [the universities’] operation.

“It would be healthy for American higher education to come to terms with its deep commitment to entertainment in the form of big-time sports,” he writes. “To pretend that this activity is a sideline no more significant than dining halls or art museums, or that athletes in the revenue sports are held to the same academic standards as other students, is to engage in a form of double-talk that would be unacceptable in most of the classrooms of those same universities.

“It would be more in keeping with the intellectual traditions of the academy to acknowledge the rather unshakable hold that commercial sports has over the universities that engage in it,” he continues. “Besides clearing the air of this kind of polite deception, such an acknowledgment would allow for an open discussion about the potentially important spillover benefits generated by big-time college sports, as well as its more obvious costs. Accepting the potent devotion to college sports also makes it easier to understand why the presidents and trustees of such universities have been unable to accomplish meaningful reform.”

Clotfelter answered a series of questions about Big-Time Sports in American Universities via e-mail. The exchange is below.

Q. You aim to bring a social scientist’s analytic eye and predilection for data to a subject — the role of big-time sports in universities — that you say has been little studied in that way. Why is that so? (I’ve often been told that professors have little incentive to ask hard questions about their colleges’ sports programs because they risk angering administrators and alumni. Could that be a factor?)

A: I was astonished at how many entire books on higher education entirely ignore big-time sports, and I must admit I am one of the guilty parties. It’s almost as if scholars of higher education operate in a parallel universe where big-time sports is absent. So I have asked myself that very question. Your explanation could be part of it. Although tenured professors aren’t usually too afraid of administrators, let alone alumni, they are apt to get icy stares from many of their fellow faculty and friends if they say uncomplimentary things about their university’s athletic department. But I suspect the better explanation is that, while scholars like me recognize the existence of sports, we don’t consider it to be part of the essence of universities, so we don’t write about it. Or, perhaps we don’t consider it to be part of what the essence should be.

Q. I would characterize your mission here as trying to use data to ask two questions: Why do universities play big-time football and basketball, and is it good for them or not? Is that a fair assessment, and if so, what are the quick and dirty answers?

A: Yes. Those were the two aims I started out with. I found I needed to broaden the second one, though, to consider the pluses and minuses from the standpoint of society as well.

First, why do they do it? The United States is the only country with universities that participate in what amounts to commercial sports leagues, and they’ve been at it for a century. The reasons this happened in America and not elsewhere are interesting to contemplate, but I am happy to accept James Michener’s explanation that it was a “quirk of history.” What is relevant for our time is the unshakable hold that big-time sports has over the universities that engage in it. Universities that have gotten into the big-time sports business virtually never give it up. The strength of this hold cannot be explained by the benefits that athletic competition brings to the academic mission alone. I believe the ingredient that gives big-time sports its remarkable staying power is quite simply support from the top – the university’s trustees or regents – who want to have competitive teams. Period.

As to the second question: at the risk of being labeled one of those “on the one hand…” economists, I would say that the answer in large part will be in the eye of the beholder. Plus, I hope that my book will motivate other researchers to take this question seriously and come up with new findings relevant to this question.

(A sidelight: One of your more innovative analyses — in a discussion of how universities use sports to court donors and politicians — was to request information from a group of universities about who sat in their presidents’ boxes and received complimentary tickets to games. Fully half the public institutions with which you filed open-records requests turned you down or gave you useless information. My favorite, from Berkeley: “The public interest served here by protecting the identity of major or potential donors, and thereby increasing the likelihood of acquiring financial support for the university, outweighs any incidental interest served by disclosing who those individuals are.”)

(Comment: I was also amused by the responses from Nebraska, Michigan State and South Carolina.)

Q. In what ways do you consider your attempt to bring rigorous data to the analysis of the pros and cons of big-time college sports to have been successful, and in what ways did it fall short? Which questions proved most clearly answerable, and which impossible to answer? Are there categories or types of data that universities should provide that would help clarify the picture?

A: My M.O. throughout the project was to look for data that would shine light on the role of big-time sports in universities. I tried to make it an empirical book about universities, not about sports. One result was that I used lots of varieties of information that had not previously been used in this connection. One analysis I was pleased with was my attempt to address a question that has been written about but never really analyzed: how does a media event like the NCAA tournament affect patterns of work? With the help of the chief of Duke’s library, I was able to obtain permission from 78 research libraries to access data from JSTOR on the number of articles viewed every day for 90 days straight in three successive years. Among the things that arise from that is the only truly causal effect in the book, showing how work declines in the two days following an unexpected win by a university’s basketball team in the tournament.

Perhaps the most useful data for studying larger questions about finances is the revenue and expense information that news organizations, including the Indianapolis Star and USA Today, have collected by taking advantage of state open records laws. Virtually no private universities, by the way, make such data available.

Q. I suspect your conclusions may prove unsatisfying to critics and supporters alike; critics because, in several places, you provide fodder for arguments that big-time sports helps the institutions (by endorsing the view that sports programs help colleges attract students, including highly capable ones, for instance), and supporters because you embrace the idea that big-time sports is a commercial enterprise, not an academic, student-driven one. Did you hope that your analysis would have provided a clearer, thumbs-up or thumbs-down conclusion?

A: Right you are. Nobody, but my wife, likes everything in the book. I was pretty agnostic when I started out about how the results would pan out. At the same time, I certainly did have two preconceived objectives: first, to let the facts speak for themselves, and, second, to avoid expending much effort worrying about detailed proposals for reform. I figured there was plenty of opinion already surrounding big-time sports, its problems, and reform proposals. What was needed, I thought, was more factual analysis.

Q. Are you a fan of college sports?

A: Unapologetically, yes, though perhaps not the most ardent one. I was lucky enough to attend a few Georgia Tech football games as a youngster, I cheered at Duke games as a student, and I pulled for Maryland and Duke as a faculty member. As much as any fan, I am drawn to the likable hero, I am thrilled by the trick play that works, and I am mesmerized by the unlikely comeback from certain defeat. What I kept reminding myself while I was working on this book, though, is: this great entertainment spectacle is a product of universities, whose research and teaching functions could not be more different!

Q. You suggest that prospects are dim for significant change in/reform of college sports — but you seem enamored of at least one potentially major change: ending the tax exemption for donations to commercially driven college athletics programs. Why would this be appropriate? How likely is this to come about? And what would be the impact?

A: The income tax deduction we have for charitable donations is usually justified on the basis that these gifts go for socially virtuous purposes like education or community service. In contrast, much of the work of contemporary college athletic departments is purely commercial. Were they not attached to a university, these departments would probably be classified by government statisticians in the entertainment industry, alongside amusement parks and minor league professional teams. So, based on the traditional justification of the charitable deduction, gifts to enhance the commercial enterprise simply don’t qualify.

Would it be easy to amend the tax law to cut out what is commercial from what is educational? No. Is it likely? No again. The impact? Given the growing importance of contributions to finance some of the most prominent college sports programs, probably noticeable.

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