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?”

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.

Continue reading “Why college sports are impervious to reform”

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.”

It’s Madness as universities play for pay

The News & ObserverOriginally published 3/11/2011

It’s Madness as universities play for pay
March 11, 2011
By Charles T. Clotfelter

DURHAM Buckle up. It’s almost time for that annual 21-day wild ride known as “March Madness,” a media event so lucrative that the name is actually trademarked. For three weeks, millions of Americans will talk nonstop about brackets, seeds and upsets, and then remain glued to their TVs or computer screens to see how their predictions hold up.

This 68-team NCAA tournament is a spectacular illustration of why commercialized sports, with all its problems, has an unshakeable hold on American higher education, and why universities do little to rein in its influence.

Universities with big-time sports are like the man in the old joke who complains that his brother thinks he’s a chicken. Asked why he doesn’t have the brother committed, the man explains, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Like this man, these universities choose to live with the contradictions inherent in big-time college sports rather than get out of the game.

For the past three years, I have been researching how and why big-time sports has become so deeply embedded in many American universities. Not surprisingly, I found that sports often dwarfs the intellectual side of universities. For instance, I looked at news coverage of 58 universities with leading athletics programs. Of the 600 articles that appeared over a year in The New York Times, 87 percent were about sports. Continue reading “It’s Madness as universities play for pay”

Uncle Sam takes one for the team

The Washington Post Originally published 12/31/2010

Uncle Sam takes one for the team
By Charles Clotfelter
Friday, December 31, 2010; A19

For big-time college sports, late December is more than the season of holiday basketball tournaments and the start of myriad football bowl games. It’s also the time for making tax-deductible gifts to the booster club of your favorite college team.

These gifts don’t get mentioned much when we hear talk of the excess costs of college sports, but they play a surprisingly large role in the college athletics business, and at considerable cost to the taxpayer. Continue reading “Uncle Sam takes one for the team”

Is Sports in Your Mission Statement?

The Chronicle of Higher Education Originally published 10/24/2010

Is Sports in Your Mission Statement?
October 24, 2010
By Charles T. Clotfelter

Sports Are Good for Colleges
Jon Krause for The Chronicle

As we enter the thick of college football season, with its abundance of televised games, I am reminded every Saturday of an important but seldom acknowledged fact about several hundred prominent American universities: They are members in good standing of the commercial entertainment industry. But the academic world’s unwillingness to admit that rather obvious fact stands in the way of what should be an honest recognition—­perhaps even appreciation—­of some of the surprising benefits of big-time, commercialized college sports.

The evidence of this commercialization begins with ubiquitous TV coverage. This season’s second week featured 23 nationally televised games on Saturday, plus three on Thursday and another on Friday, not counting the dozens of games covered regionally and those on the Big Ten’s own cable network. It also shows up in mushrooming athletic budgets, lucrative contracts with shoe and apparel companies, hefty sales of logo-embossed gear, and, of course, outsized pay packages for celebrity coaches. The head football coaches at several dozen public universities earned an average of $2-million last year, more than 14 times the average pay for full professors and several multiples of what their presidents made. Continue reading “Is Sports in Your Mission Statement?”

80 years of trade-offs in college sports

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionOriginally published 11/27/2009

80 years of trade-offs in college sports
November 27, 2009 Friday Main Edition

Charles Clotfelter; For the AJC
American college athletics, a report says, is “a highly organized commercial enterprise. The athletes who take part in it have come up through years of training; they are commanded by professional coaches; little if any personal initiative of ordinary play is left to the player.
“The great matches are highly profitable enterprises.”
Although these words well describe big-time college sports in 2009, they were written 80 years ago.
On Oct. 23, 1929, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued a 350-page report that was based on three years of work and site visits to more than 100 campuses.
Titled simply “American College Athletics,” it received front-page coverage the next day in The New York Times.
What is most striking about the Carnegie Foundation report is how contemporary its findings sound today.
Despite the dramatic changes that have transformed college athletics into a major part of the American entertainment industry — including television and the influx of billions of advertising dollars — the descriptions it gives of conditions in 1929 provide an eerily accurate picture of 2009.
From the earliest days of intercollegiate competition, college sports had been criticized for allowing commercial interests and over-emphasis on winning to undermine academic values. Continue reading “80 years of trade-offs in college sports”