New Books in Sports

Charles Clotfelter, “Big-Time Sports in American Universities”

Charles Clotfelter

Corruption in big-time college sports recently claimed another victim: Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel. Once regarded as a paragon of integrity, Tressel is now seen as one more example of a coach who recruited star players and built a successful program with the benefit of illegal gifts from boosters. Whether the result of Tressel’s deliberate disregard of rules or his neglect as coach, the scandal at Ohio State reminds us again that big-time college sports is deeply flawed.

Listen to the full interview here.

Big-time college sports, meaning major-conference football and men’s basketball, has its defenders and opponents. Some insist that it benefits both student athletes and the universities for which they play. Others mock the idea of the amateur “student-athletes” and view the programs themselves as for-profit enterprises that rake in tens of millions of dollars in television, ticket, and merchandise revenue. Both sides in the debate, and anyone who has a serious interest in college sports, will find much that is revealing and startling in Charles Clotfelter‘s book Big-Time Sports in American Universities (Cambridge University Press, 2011). The Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics and Law at Duke University, Charlie easily combines the rigorous approach of a respected scholar with a knack for easy-to-understand explanation. Both experts and sports fans (and expert sports fans) will learn a lot about the economics of big-time college athletics from this book.

Charlie investigates some of the basic justifications for multi-million-dollar programs—for example, that they pay for non-revenue-generating college sports, or that they increase student enrollments—to see if they bring the benefits their supporters claim. He also exposes the troubled finances at the foundation of most major programs, and the networks of influence that university leaders cultivate through access to luxury boxes and prime seats. And he offers an economic rationale for why coaches like Jim Tressel are led to break the rules.

As he says in the interview, Charlie remains a fan of college sports. But he also calls for an honest acknowledgement of what big-time college sports really is: a lucrative entertainment business that is connected with higher education in a distant, but mutually dependent, relationship. That, he says, is the first step toward any reform.

Interview with Charles Clotfelter

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