THE GAME OF LIFE: College Sports and Academic Values

 

Last week I delivered a letter to the president of the University at Buffalo faculty senate that began:

 

I write to recommend that the University at Buffalo withdraw from Division IA athletics.

 

I base much of my argument for downgrading at least to the university's former Division III status on the recently published book The Game of Life: College Sports and Academic Values by James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen (Princeton University Press)....

 

It is not often that a book can have as major an impact on a reader as this one has had on me -- and, I add, should have on everyone interested in education. It makes a compelling case that Division IA athletics is bad not only for a university's academic community but for the community at large as well. And it has led me to take this drastic action. I only hope that the university students, faculty and administration will have the wisdom to act favorably in response to this recommendation.

 

The Game of Life is a myth destroyer. The authors bring to bear statistics gathered from 90,000 students at 30 colleges that are, like the University at Buffalo, selective enough to have to turn away many well qualified applicants. "Every spring," the authors say, "valedictorians with straight A averages, and applicants with stellar SAT scores who may have conducted original laboratory research or made a full-length documentary film, are rejected because there are only so many spots in a class. Because there are so many outstanding candidates, a place in the entering class...is a scarce resource."

 

Basing their conclusions on a massive ten year quantitative research program that includes data collected in 1951, 1976 and 1989, these authors effectively destroy such accepted convictions as college sports programs pay for themselves, playing sports builds character, athletic contests encourage alumni support, and college sports play a major factor in the integration of underrepresented minorities into higher education.

 

The authors brought to their task impeccable qualifications. Both are officers of the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation and Bowen is a former Princeton University president. Earlier they drew on the same resources for a widely respected study of race-sensitive college admissions called The Shape of the River.

 

The 30 colleges from which data were drawn are divided into six categories. The eight Division IA private universities include such athletic powerhouses as Duke and Notre Dame. The other categories are Division IAA (four Ivy League colleges), Division IA public universities with four schools, Division III with three schools like Washington University of St. Louis, Division III co-ed liberal arts colleges with seven schools like Williams, and Division III women's colleges with four schools like Wellesley. Although I will focus in this review on Division IA public universities because those findings apply to UB, this book raises even stronger concerns for our other local colleges.

 

The four Division IA public universities included are Miami University of Ohio, a college with which UB competes in the Mid-American Athletic Conference, as well as Penn State, Michigan and North Carolina, the last three schools with which UB is associated in academic and research activities -- competitors in that different sense.

 

Before detailing some of the findings of this important study, I offer some personal comments. First a disclaimer: I enjoy sports now as an observer. And all too many years ago I was a (very poor) football player then a high school coach of football, baseball and track and finally a school and college referee. But I recognize our U.S. and more specifically our local terrible overcommitment to sports. When we have a radio station given over completely to jocks (with a fired coach as a major ambassador), when our major newspaper devotes whole sections to sports and even includes a column that reviews sports announcers (how far from reality can you get?), when a community that does not adequately support its cultural institutions draws thousands to pay $60 to watch mostly toothless hockey players skate up and down and occasionally wrestle, we have gone too far.

 

But perhaps the worst evidence of how far we have descended locally is the garish Bulls (not Bills) Stadium on the UB Amherst Campus. Visit it and look around. To help defray its athletic costs, the Athletic Department has sold advertising space to every comer and the result is the degradation of a major tax-supported public university. It is easy to notice that this is the only place on campus where such commercialism is flaunted. The chemistry building, for example, does not carry an advertisement for DuPont or Kodak, I suppose I should add, yet.

 

Shulman and Bowen address this commercialization of sports from several angles.

 

One way of limiting the expenditure of general funds on athletics is to at­tract revenues from commercial sponsors.... At the schools with big-time athletic programs, winning consistently in the High Profile sports has very large financial consequences. There is no denying the attendant incentives and pressures: on coaches, the admissions process, academic programs followed by athletes who must stay eligible, schedul­ing of games, housing and training athletes, and on and on. Controlling these pressures is not easy, and there is an obvious danger that the aca­demic integrity of the institution will be corrupted.

 

But here is their bottom line:

 

While revenues rise and fall with the competitive fortunes of the teams and even with trends in fashions (such as the popularity of college sweatshirts), expenditures are far more predictable: they just keep going up. They go up because of expanding programs, scheduling commitments, and competition to have and maintain the best facilities and coaches. Whatever the other benefits of athletic programs are, or are perceived to be, the pursuit of net revenues is very difficult to accept as a justification. As a moneymaking venture, athletics is a bad business.

 

The Financial Equation

 

Just how much do sports cost?

 

Expenditures on intercollegiate athletics, excluding capital costs, vary tremendously depending on the level of play at which the institution competes. Total expenditures, excluding capital costs, reach...$20 to $25 million at a...'standard' Division IA university.

 

Compare that with $1.5 million at Division III schools.

 

The authors invite us to consider the University of Michigan where in the 1998-99 academic year the football team drew an average of just under 111,000 fans per game and won the Citrus Bowl. The school's other teams did well too, the men's gymnasts winning the national championship. But the athletic department lost $3.8 million that year.

 

If winners can do so poorly, imagine the costs to us losers.

 

Revenues from athletics, including gate receipts and television and bowl revenues, can offset most, and sometimes all, of the costs of big-time programs if (and only if) teams are consistently successful; even in these settings, most schools lose money, and it is unlikely that any school comes close to covering its full costs if proper allowances are made for the capital-intensive nature of athletics.

 

And this focus of funding has additional influences:

 

Here we note only that students who might be interested in other extracurricular pursuits -- putting out the school paper or acting on stage, for example -- have no comparable, equally expensive, infrastructure sup­porting them. Each assistant football coach takes the place of the non­existent journalism coach who would indubitably make the campus pa­per even better than it is absent such coaching. Disproportionate funding follows disproportionate athletic recruiting and succeeds in enabling a level of professionalism -- but only in one particular area. It is useful to re­member that per-student expenditures on all student services combined (including core functions such as the admissions office) are in the range of $2,000 to $3,000 at these institutions, as compared with athletic out­lays of $8,000 per individual athlete in the Ivies, to take that one point of comparison." In fact, the picture is much worse at Division IA "standard" universities where "net athletics operating expenditure per athlete" is $17,800 as compared with $2,000 "student services expenditure per undergraduate student.

 

They add:

 

These comparisons neglect all capital costs of both athletics and student services, and they also ignore the fact that students who are athletes also benefit from general student services. To obtain an additional set of reference points, we asked some schools to provide data on the costs of club sports, intramural programs, and other types of student activities. The scattered bits of information available show a surprisingly consistent picture. Expenditures on club sports and intramurals (added together) ranged from $160,000 at one Division III college to $260,000 at several Division IA universities that were able to provide data. Outlays for orchestras and other student groups proved impossible to sort out with any precision, but we were able to obtain a list of such activities at one Ivy League university that together cost $322,000. For this amount, the university supported bands, an orchestra, dramatic and debate organizations, student government, ethnic organizations, and everything from the Anti-Gravity Society to the Chinese Calligraphy Association. These data confirm the simple but important point that intercollegiate competition entails an entirely different level of financial commitment than either the less formal club and intramural sports or the full range of extracurricular activities.

 

The book points out that even such exorbitant costs may in some cases be worth it. Winners can bring recognition and credit to a region -- as do, it must be recognized, the Buffalo Bills. It is hard to make that case for the University at Buffalo which currently finds itself (to mix metaphors) the doormat of what can only be described as a bush league of Division IA sports. (Few of its league competitors are schools with which UB would wish to compare itself academically.)

 

More important is what a commitment to Division IA sports does to a university community.

 

The Academic Equation

 

The most pernicious and pervasive influence is on admissions. Here are some of the findings of The Game of Life:

 

Athletes who are recruited, and who end up on the carefully winnowed lists of desired candidates submitted by coaches to the admissions office, now enjoy a very substantial statistical 'advantage' in the admissions process -- a much greater advantage than that enjoyed by other targeted groups such as underrepresented minority students, alumni children, and other legacies; this statement is true for both male and female athletes. At a representative non-scholarship school for which we have complete data on all applicants, recruited male athletes applying for admission to the '99 entering cohort had a 48 percent greater chance of being admitted than did male stu­dents at large, after taking differences in SAT scores into account; the cor­responding admissions advantage enjoyed by recruited women athletes in '99 was 53 percent. The admissions advantages enjoyed by minority students and legacies were in the range of 18 to 24 percent.

 

The admissions advantage enjoyed by men and women athletes at this school, which there is reason to believe is reasonably typical of schools of its type, was much greater in '99 than in '89, and it was greater in '89 than in '76. The trend -- the directional signal -- is unmistakably clear.

 

One obvious consequence of assigning such a high priority to admitting recruited athletes is that they enter these colleges and universities with consider­ably lower SAT scores than their classmates. This pattern holds for both men and women athletes and is highly consistent by type of school. The SAT 'deficit' is most pronounced for men and women who play sports at the Division IA schools.... Among the men at every type of school, the SAT deficits are largest for those who play the High Profile sports of football, basketball, and hockey.

 

The deficit is not small: the average SAT score for these Division IA public universities is 917, 237 points below the average for all students. What this means is that the average athlete given a scholarship by these selective universities is in the bottom half of his or her high school class! And if that is the average, you can bet that there are some, like Thurber's fictional Bolenkowitz at Ohio State, even further down. Is this an appropriate use of public funds?

 

And how do these students do once they arrive on campus and despite extra academic coaching, special study rooms and 'gut' courses carefully included in their schedules?

 

When we examine grades (rank-in-class)...the academic standing of athletes, relative to that of their classmates, has deteriorated markedly in recent years.... Only 16 percent of those in the '89 cohort finished in the top third, and 58 percent finished in the bottom third. Women athletes in the '89 cohort were more likely than other women to be in the bottom third of the class. This pattern is especially pronounced in those sets of schools where women athletes were highly recruited." In the Division IA schools the picture is still worse: 72% of athletes participating in what the authors call "high profile" sports -- football, basketball and at some schools hockey -- ranked in the lower third of their class.

 

Only part of this decline in the academic performance of athletes can be attributed to their lower levels of aptitude or preparation at the time they began college; they consistently underperform academically even after we control for differences in standardized test scores and other variables. Academic under-performance among athletes is a pervasive phenomenon. It is found among both male and female athletes and among those who played all types of sports (not just among the men who played foot­ball, basketball, and hockey).

 

And the influence of special admissions for athletes is communicated to schools. This is, I feel, the saddest message of all:

 

High school students, their parents, and their schools watch attentively for the signals that colleges and universities send. The more that leading colleges and universities signal through their actions how much they value athletic prowess, the greater the emphasis that potential applicants will place on these activities. The issuing of rewards based on sports accom­plishments supports (and in fact makes real) the message that sports is the road to opportunity.  Young people in schools of all kinds -- from prep schools to inner-city schools -- are less likely to get a message that the way upward is to learn to write computer code or take chemistry seriously when it is not only the pros and the big-time schools, but also the Ivies and the most selective liberal arts colleges, that place a large premium on athletic prowess, focus, and specialization. Athletic scholarships and tickets of admission to non-scholarship schools provide a more powerful in­centive than the promises contained in high-minded proclamations.

 

Here is what an interviewed school administrator had to say about athletic scholarships:

 

Look first at the message sent to the athlete. She or he may well be confused as to the true reason for the offer of admission. Even if she had an excellent academic record, she might rightly conclude that she was admitted because she is an outstanding athlete. This cheapens her academic accomplishments and suggests that her athletic achievements in college will be more highly re­garded than anything she accomplishes academically.

 

Look next at the message sent to a school community when a dispropor­tionate number of admissions to the most selective colleges go to prominent athletes. Again, whatever the academic accomplishments of the admitted athlete, the community will read a mixed message. Needless to say, there are occasions when the admitted athlete is not a particularly successful student. This admission sends a very clear message. As students who have assembled virtually perfect academic records are denied by the most selective colleges while their peers whose athletic accomplishments have earned recognition are accepted, the perceived value of the academic program is diluted.

 

The African-American Equation

 

Shulman and Bowen say concerning the numbers of African American athletes,

 

By 1976,...all schools in our study were now actively seeking to admit talented black students, although even with race being taken into account in admissions only 5 percent of all male students were black.... A much bigger change was evident in the High Profile sports. The overall proportion of football and basketball players coming from the African American community at the scholarship-awarding schools in Division IA was now four to five times their proportion in the student body at large. In the '89 cohort, the percentage of High Profile athletes who were black was higher yet.... At the scholarship-granting schools, African Americans accounted for nearly 40 percent of all students playing football or basketball. For these students, it seems, the 'golden ring' held out to African American high school students who were excellent athletes had been seized, and the campus was more racially diverse as a result. Not everyone, however, saw the picture this way:

 

Sociologist Harry Edwards on the role of sports in the black community: Black communities, black families, and black student athletes themselves also have critically vital roles to play in efforts to remedy the disastrous educational consequence of black sports involvement. The undeniable fact is that through its blind belief in sport as an extraordinary route to social and economic salvation, black society has unwittingly become an accessory to, and a major perpetuator of, the rape, or less figuratively put, the disparate exploitation of the black student athlete. We have in effect set up our own children for academic victimization and athletic exploitation by our encouragement of, if not insistence upon, the primacy of sports achievement over all else.

 

But most important they point out:

 

Contrary to much popular mythology, recruitment of athletes has no marked effect on either the socioeconomic composition of these schools or on their racial diversity. Male athletes (especially those who play High Profile sports at the Division IA schools) are more likely than students at large to come from modest socioeconomic backgrounds and to be African Americans. Nonetheless, elimination of the athletic contribution to racial diversity in the '89 cohort would have caused the percentage of African American men enrolled at these schools to decline by just 1 percentage point -- an estimate obtained by recalculating the percentage of African American stu­dents who would have been enrolled had the racial mix of athletes been the same as the racial mix of students at large. There would even be an opposite effect among the women, since the share of African American women playing college sports is much lower -- often half the corresponding percentage -- of African American women students at large. Moreover, un­til very recently, women athletes were more likely than other women stu­dents to come from privileged backgrounds. Those men who play Lower Profile sports continue to come from more advantaged backgrounds than either the other athletes or the rest of their male classmates.

 

And finally they quote Henry Louis Gates, W. E .B. DuBois Professor at Harvard University, on just how clearly the signals are read among young African Americans:

 

The blind pursuit of attainment in sports is having a devastating effect on our people. Imbued with a belief that our principal avenue to fame and profit is through sports and seduced by a win-at-any-cost system that cor­rupts even elementary school students, far too many black kids treat bas­ketball courts and football fields as if they were classrooms in an alternative school system. 'Oh, I flunked English,' a young athlete will say. 'But I got an A plus in slam-dunking.'

 

The National Equation

 

If one can be singled out, I consider the villain of this situation to be the National Collegiate Athletic Association -- the NCAA. (It measures, I believe, only one degree above the Olympic Committee for rotten behavior.) this is an organization in which athletic directors lead college presidents around by their noses, dictating to schools nationwide an increasing litany of rules that further extend the control of athletics within each college community. Of them THE GAME OF LIFE has this to say:

 

When a group of college presidents...sought (in 1983, acting through the American Council on Education) to take control of an athletics structure that was perceived to be acting with complete disregard for academic standards, the NCAA formed its own presidents' commission, thereby solidifying its place in determining which rules would be made and how they would be enforced.

 

They also tell how the NCAA manipulated control over women's athletics out of the hands of "the group that had long sponsored and led the fight for women's college sports, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

 

Today it is possible to escape completely the clutches of this organization only by reducing competition to club sports, but at least the Division III sports picture is more healthy than Division IA. The NCAA doesn't worry about Division III so much as they do not produce the TV revenue that drives the monster organization and gives it its fire-breathing power.

 

There are in fact forces fighting against this dragon but that is another story which, sadly, I am willing to bet will turn out to be a tragedy, as witness the recent Olympics Committee debacle.

 

The Local Equation

 

Can you imagine the response if I recommended that Canisius or Niagara give up their major commitment to basketball? Their boosters -- including our Buffalo mayor -- would drum me out of town. Those schools have a history of high level competition in this one sport that cannot be easily undone. The sins of their programs are either swept under the rug or accepted as part of the game.

 

But UB is different. This school has just moved to Division IA. (I note here that I supported President Sample in that move, thinking that it would carry with it a corresponding upgrade in the university's stature. I now realize in hindsight how wrong I was.) Its brief history carrying out this 'upgrade' may best be described as checkered. Coaches fired. Baseball eliminated. Awful records: The football team losing games by 50 or 60 points and ranked dead last among Division IA schools; basketball as I write on a ten game losing streak.

 

A poor record was to be expected as the school passes through the transition from Division III to IA. But that is not my point. The poor record together with the newness of 'Big League' participation offers a real opportunity to get out before the boosters become entrenched. In particular, attendance suggests that there is little student commitment to intercollegiate sports. This opportunity to 'downgrade' will not recur and this probably represents our last chance to get out.

 

The evidence is in. An important book dictates a better future for our fine University at Buffalo. Read The Game of Life and join me in helping that university to protect its academic health against this cancerous growth of commercialized big time sports.-- Gerry Rising