The United States is the only country with universities that participate in what amounts to commercial sports entertainment.
Why this happened in America and not elsewhere is interesting to contemplate. James Michener called it a “quirk of history.” But what is relevant for our time is the unshakable hold that big-time sports continues to have over the universities that engage in it.
For almost a century, big-time college sports has been a wildly popular but consistently problematic part of American higher education. The challenges it poses to traditional academic values have been recognized from the start, but they have grown more ominous in recent decades, as cable television has become ubiquitous, commercial opportunities have proliferated, and athletic budgets have ballooned.
The book asks two questions. Why do universities play big-time football and basketball? And: Is it good for them or not?
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.
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. Continue reading “Inside Higher Ed”
In Big-Time Sports in American Universities, a new book out from Cambridge University Press, Charles T. Clotfelter examines what some describe as the outsize role athletics plays on many American campuses. Below, the Duke University professor of public policy, economics, and law answers a few of our questions about his work.
You’ve written about school desegregation, the growth of state lotteries, and the rising price of college. What about college sports attracted your attention?
Like a lot of Americans, I have been a fan of college sports from early on, so it was second-nature to me that people might get very invested in the fortunes of college teams. What I did not expect, before I took my first faculty position, was that college sports would be a subject of such intense interest among otherwise serious and studious professors. I began to realize the powerful hold that big-time college sports has on people, and universities, is one of those “ever-present but overlooked” aspects of life that social scientists are taught to look out for. Continue reading “The Chronicle of Higher Education”