Thad Williamson, Independent Weekly

A Duke economist examines the costs and benefits of big-time college sports

August 31, 2011

Thad Williamson

Is big-time college football good for society? That is, in essence, the question posed by Charles Clotfelter’s remarkably well-timed book, Big-Time Sports in American Universities, published last spring. Clotfelter is an economics professor at Duke University, and he utilizes the tools of that trade, as well as creative research strategies, to document the costs and benefits of college sports and tensions between the entertainment wing and academic mission of major universities.

That said, this book is not the book you might be expecting. It is not a moralistic condemnation of big-time college football and basketball. Indeed, one of Clotfelter’s aims is to show why so many universities have embraced the seemingly alien realm of competitive sports, and why so few, once in the game, ever get out of it.

Probably the single most novel point Clotfelter contributes to the discussion is this: We should take seriously the fact that college basketball and football do provide many benefits to society, particularly to the loyal fans of schools who evidently derive so much satisfaction (“utility” in economics lingo) from watching their team play. Clotfelter employs the term “consumer surplus” to refer to those dedicated fans for whom wearing the gear, buying a ticket and going to the game are “priceless” pleasures whose value far exceeds the cost of the experience.

Scholars from other fields might explain the phenomenon in other ways, but Clotfelter’s core point remains valid: We can’t think realistically about reform possibilities without taking seriously the great pleasure and meaning that many people derive from college sports and would miss terribly if they suddenly no longer existed.

Clotfelter points to the broader social benefits associated with college sports. He argues that sports embody and teach an ideal of meritocracy that aligns well with what most Americans take as a core value—the idea that the most deserving should get the greatest rewards—and that in a diverse society still recovering from the wounds of its racist history, college sports provide a highly visible model of interracial cooperation, in which athletes are (generally) judged by the content of their contribution to the team rather than the color of their skin.

Less obvious but also pertinent is the role that sports have played in building political and financial support for higher education, particularly large public universities. Clotfelter suggests that this has largely been a good bargain for universities in terms of attracting funding and positive attention. Internally, sports are an important form of community and shared interest that helps tie members of the university community together—not just as people who happen to be enrolled at or employed at the same institution at a given time, but as Tar Heels, Blue Devils and so on.

Further, the presence of a big-time football team indeed can become a boon to university fundraising; Clotfelter’s innovative research tactics include a study of who sits in the college president’s box during football games. Perhaps unsurprisingly, school officials use the face time during games as a way to talk to donors about broader university needs. Presidents can also use valued game tickets as a way to dispense favors and make friends; if you are the chancellor at UNC, probably nothing works so well in flattering a potential donor or political ally than a pair of tickets to a Duke-Carolina basketball game.

Finally, Clotfelter takes on arguments that claim that the mere presence of big-time sports is necessarily damaging to a university’s academic mission or reputation. He points out that the United States is generally regarded as having the world’s outstanding system of higher education and network of research universities, that many of these leading academic institutions also have big-time sports, and that there is no persuasive evidence than the presence of those sports harm the research activities of those schools.

This is not to say Clotfelter has produced an apologia for big-time college sports. In fact, he is deeply versed in the varied critiques of college sports, and this book adds new wrinkles to familiar critiques through its research. For instance, Clotfelter shows how a school’s participation in the NCAA basketball tournament leads to reduced usage of academic databases by library users during March, and he shows how at the big-time football schools, athletics boosters are more than twice as likely as economics professors (71 percent to 32 percent) to be registered Republicans, suggesting that recurring tensions between sports and academics at places like UNC are as much political and cultural conflicts as debates over university policy.

Clotfelter goes on to discuss various reform proposals, the most novel of which is his suggestion that the tax laws governing university booster clubs be altered. If donors could no longer claim a tax deduction on gifts to university booster clubs, it could help slow down the facilities arms race and redirect at least some money to more socially useful purposes.

But the message that shines most clearly in the book is not any particular proposal, but a call for greater honesty, a willingness for all parties to acknowledge that college athletics are a very significant, not marginal, part of the modern university, that college athletics are essentially a branch of the entertainment industry and, finally, that big-time athletic departments are in obvious tension with the rest of the university, from their internal culture to the weak academic credentials of many top players. Too often, Clotfelter writes, faculty and university leaders simply have failed to engage the reality of what big-time college sports are and the large role they play on many campuses.

This recognition hardly needs to lead to a resigned acceptance of the status quo. Clotfelter would be as appalled as most faculty members if athletics were to become the driving force steering higher education, and he recognizes that’s a real danger at some institutions. Indeed, Clotfelter suggests that a more open recognition of the reality and staying power of sports on campus could actually allow the academic enterprise to go on the offensive, by publicizing and leading critical discussion about those aspects of athletics department culture which conflict with academic norms, from free speech issues (to cite one of his examples) to the way many coaches draw on gender stereotypes and derogatory views of women and gays in motivating players.

Clotfelter is an economist, not a Jeremiah. But his analysis and attempt to reckon with the costs and benefits of college sports is essential reading for anyone serious about understanding why college sports persist and what practical steps could be taken to improve them.

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