Sports Enhance School Loyalty

Virtually every college with a dormitory gives its students the chance to play sports. Doing so enriches the educational experience by teaching important life lessons. And it’s smart marketing to boot, because a lot of students want to play sports in college. So I doubt if many colleges will emulate a decision by Spelman that was surely driven by serious financial strain.

On the contrary, dozens of universities have been going in the opposite direction by investing more and more in big-time competitive sports rather than paring them down. For over a century, universities like Michigan, Texas and U.C.L.A., buoyed by widespread fan interest, have built giant commercial sports operations, marked today by huge stadiums, famous coaches and multimillion dollar TV deals. In the process, their mascots and team colors have become both cultural touchstones and valuable brands.

With just the faintest connection to the educational mission, these big-time sports enterprises serve a different institutional imperative – sports competition for its own sake. They create legions of loyal fans whose support makes dropping football or basketball unthinkable.

To illustrate how secure big-time college sports are, for my most recent book I traced the histories of 72 national universities that were among the top football programs in 1920. Over the next 90 years, only two of them stopped playing intercollegiate football. Once begun, football enterprises take on a life of their own by creating a new stakeholder group called “boosters.”

One of these was the University of Chicago, whose president, Robert Hutchins, railed against big-time sports. Yet Hutchins’s opposition was not sufficient. It took 15 miserable seasons to convince the trustees to drop football. In Chicago’s final, disastrous season, its team suffered defeats at the hands of Virginia, Harvard, Ohio State and Michigan by scores of 47-0, 61-0, 61-0 and 85-0 (since 1969 the school has had a Division III team, which is competitive but is hardly considered "top football.")

But Chicago is the rare exception. For almost all of the universities that have embraced big-time sports, there is no going back. Only a perfect storm can dislodge a university from its big-time sports program, and those don’t happen very often.

Charles Clotfelter is a professor of public policy and author of "Big-Time Sports in America Universities." This commentary was originally published in The New York Times.