Are sports taking over some of our best universities?

The Charlotte Observer*

The frenzy over Zion Williamson’s injury highlights just how much sports have become a dominant aspect of university life these days.

By Charles Clotfelter, Special to the Observer
February 23, 2019 07:00 AM, Updated February 25, 2019 02:56 PM

As the media frenzy over the injury to Duke star Zion Williamson this week once again demonstrates, big-time college sports is a business. The truth is that scores of American universities operate the equivalent of minor league professional sports franchises. Until these universities acknowledge and own that reality, it won’t be possible to have an honest debate about whether big-time sports have become a threat to American preeminence in higher education.
Continue reading “Are sports taking over some of our best universities?”

Charles Clotfelter in the Daily Tar Heel

The Southern Historical Collection, Friends of the Library, and the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History sponsored a panel discussion regarding collegiate sports featuring Taylor Branch, William C. Friday, and Charles T. Clotfelter.

Charles Clotfelter with The Daily Tar Heel
Originally posted by DTH Media.

College Sports Reform

Charles Clotfelter discusses College Sports Reform on WUNC’s “The State of Things”

Tuesday, February 28 2012 by Alex Granados and Frank Stasio

Big time college sports like basketball and football have a contradictory reputation at many universities. They bring in big bucks and engender loyalty to a school, but they also distract from higher education’s primary mission. Are reforms necessary in the college sports system? Host Frank Stasio talks to Dave Dewitt, WUNC’s education reporter and a former college basketball player and coach; Charles Clotfelter, professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University and author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities” (Cambridge University Press/2011); and Will Blythe, editor-at-large of Byliner and author of “To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever” (Harper/2007), which chronicles the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry.

Listen to Charles Clotfelter on the Value of Big-Time College Sports

Or, visit the WUNC website for more information and media.







Charles Clotfelter featured on CSPAN BOOKTV

Charles Clotfelter looks at the impact of commercial-level sports at universities in the United States and assesses what this has meant for the system of higher learning. He showed some pictures and charts during his presentation and he responded to questions from members of the audience.

“College Sports: You got a problem with that?” was a Shaftesbury Society luncheon talk at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina.

CSPAN BOOKTV aired the talk on February 13, 2012, and it is available for online viewing here.


Why college sports are impervious to reform

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette*

It’s simple; trustees like things the way they are, argues Duke professor CHARLES CLOTFELTER

By Charles Clotfelter

Sunday, January 1, 2012

If Charles Dickens were writing about big-time college sports in 2011, he would have left it at, “It was the worst of times.”

The year began with long-standing concerns about runaway spending, a bowl system that unfairly favors rich conferences and the exploitation of athletes. Then came a string of scandals at high-profile programs, among them Ohio State, North Carolina and Miami. Then the year concluded with shocking allegations of sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse.

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Charles Clotfelter Takes Questions on the Value of College Sports, Nov. 10

In a live, online “Office Hours” conversation Thursday at noon, the author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities” will explain what he learned in writing his book.

Originally posted on

Editor’s Note: Watch the webcast live Thursday at noon on the Duke Ustream channel.

Charles Clotfelter

DURHAM, NC – College football is in the news this year not only for on-field highlights, but also because of shifting conference alignments, NCAA investigations, and even criminal charges.


Duke Professor Charles Clotfelter, author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities,” says questions surrounding the mix of money, morality and education in intercollegiate athletics are nothing new, but that is no excuse for avoiding reform.

“Cheating won’t be solved just by tighter rules and better enforcement. A century of big-time college sports tells us that much,” Clotfelter wrote in an opinion piece. “Real change won’t happen until university trustees, not just presidents, show they value the academic mission more than winning games.”

During a live, interactive “Office Hours” webcast at noon Thursday, Nov. 10, Clotfelter will answer viewer questions about the business and ethics of college sports. Watch the webcast on the Duke Ustream channel. To submit a question, send an email to, tweet with the tag #dukelive or post to the Duke University Facebook page.

Learn more about the book

In reviewing “Big-Time Sports in American Universities,” The Seattle Times wrote, “In a book dense with statistics — and sports fans love statistics, right? — Clotfelter compiles a sort of ledger sheet, with the good (athletic success begets a bump in applications for admission) alongside the bad (most big-time college sports programs lose big-time money).”

Clotfelter is the Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of Public Policy at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and also a professor of economics and law. He enjoys playing squash and golf — and watching college sports.


John Drescher, Raleigh News & Observer

Hazards, benefits of college sports programs

September 3, 2011

Cars. Cash. Prostitutes. Academic fraud. Scandal after scandal in college sports threaten the integrity of universities and the jobs of the people who run them.

Yet UNC Charlotte will start playing football in two years. A committee at Appalachian State has recommended the Mountaineers move to the top level of college football.

Why? Because for universities, the benefits outweigh the costs, says Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University economist who has taken a clear-eyed view of big-time sports in higher education.

Continue reading “John Drescher, Raleigh News & Observer”

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.

Continue reading “Thad Williamson, Independent Weekly”

NCAA violations won’t stop until trustees act

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

NCAA violations won’t stop until trustees act

By Charles T. Clotfelter

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Among the urgent topics discussed by more than 50 university presidents at the NCAA retreat last week in Indianapolis was what to do about the apparent epidemic of cheating in big-time college sports.

One sports writer opined that there had “never been a year with more lying, cheating, poor leadership and all-around misbehaving.”

Institutions including Auburn, Georgia Tech, Connecticut, LSU, Ohio State, Tennessee and USC, as well as world-class research universities Michigan and North Carolina, have been implicated in rules violations ranging from excessive practice time and plagiarism to the sale of memorabilia and outright payments to players.

Given the well-deserved academic reputations these universities have earned, one might ask, how could they have let this happen?

Cheating has been a part of big-time college sports for a long time. The Carnegie Commission’s exhaustive 1929 report on college sports documented numerous violations of recruiting rules. In the 1980s, players at Southern Methodist University received regular cash payments. A study published in 1991 found that 35 percent of more than a thousand football players surveyed had taken illegal payments while they were in college.

Last October, Sports Illustrated published an account by a retired sports agent who said he had paid 30 different college football players over his two-decade career.

And there’s the well-publicized sagas of two recent Heisman Trophy winners. One received free hotel stays and housing for his family when he played for USC. The father of the other player reportedly demanded a six-figure payment to get his son to sign with one college team.

In some cases of rule-breaking, the culprits are on a university’s payroll.

Other cases involve sports agents, family members or athletic boosters, but universities are penalized if they are found to have been looking the other way.

None of the universities penalized by NCAA condones rule-breaking. Yet those very universities have created the incentives that make cheating so tempting.

It may sound like blaming the victim, but this is what I have concluded after spending several years studying the role of big-time college sports in America — the only country in the world, by the way, with universities that sponsor commercial sports. What distinguishes universities with big-time sports programs from those that don’t is that, in addition to their dedication to teaching, research and service, they care deeply about having competitive teams, especially in football and basketball.

Big-time sports can benefit the academic mission of the universities that sponsor it, including exposure that pays off in bigger applicant pools and stronger support from donors and legislators. But for these universities, sports success is not just a means to an end. It is an end in itself.

Trustees don’t expect championship teams every year, but they do care deeply about being competitive. They certainly don’t want their team to be the conference doormat.

Consider what this means for how an athletic department operates. Coaches are not asked simply to have good teams. They must win games. In the winner-take-all setting that is basic to athletic competition, this makes it imperative to recruit star athletes, spend money on coaches and facilities, and pursue every conceivable source of income.

Signing those star recruits means pushing the envelope at every edge. For some coaches and athletic directors, it will inevitably mean stepping over the line, which can be facilitated by boosters willing to provide cash, cars or other inducements. And, because it’s essential to keep these stars academically eligible once they enroll, there is every incentive to provide overworked and often under-prepared athletes all the tutoring possible.

Rule-breaking also carries reputational risks. Although fans often seem unperturbed by penalties, universities with sparkling academic reputations have a great deal to lose when NCAA investigators come calling, which explains why these universities seldom get in trouble and why there is so much hand-wringing when they do.

Rule-breaking in college sports is often viewed strictly in moral terms, as a reflection of defective character. But it would be a mistake to ignore the powerful influence of the universities themselves and the incentives they create by attaching such importance to athletic success.

Cheating won’t be solved just by tighter rules and better enforcement. A century of big-time college sports tells us that much.

Real change won’t happen until university trustees, not just presidents, show they value the academic mission more than winning games.

Charles Clotfelter is a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University. He is the author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities.”