ALMOST FROM the day that Rutgers and Princeton played the first inter-collegiate football game, in 1869, educators and other sensible American people have decried the overemphasis of sport as contrary to the mission of higher education. Nothing, in fact, is more predictable (and hypocritical) than the periodic bouts of disgust that American college presidents exhibit when they decide to discover once again that—egad!—big-time college football and basketball corrupt education, serving no worthy purpose but to keep illegal bookies profitable and industrious sorts from Dick Vitale to Mike Krzyzewski to Nike (to, yes, the publisher of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED) in high cotton.
The myths that college sports 1) make money for their schools or 2) encourage more contributions from infatuated alumni were exploded long ago. (In the most recent particular, alumni giving even shot up at Indiana after Bob Knight was fired.) Nobody really disputes the fact that high-profile college sports are an expensive excess and an educational anomaly, as academically useless as teats on the male. Even Walter Byers, the perennial NCAA executive director, retired a few years ago and then wrote a book essentially saying that his whole professional life had been a lie, that the college sports cartel he had run for decades was a fraud.
However, for all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, nothing much gets done. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a feel-good collection of prominent university presidents and former presidents (as well as some business leaders and Knight Foundation trustees), has pompously reconvened, decrying and proposing. But James Duderstadt, a former president of Michigan (perhaps the grandest athletic program under one academic roof), addressed the Knight brethren recently, and he sees the reality. In his recent book, Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University, Duderstadt states baldly what everyone knows well—that presidents will never dare grapple with the athletic monster in their midst. Duderstadt writes, "Intercollegiate athletics today has such a low relevance to the rest of university life, and its problems seem so intractable, few presidents choose to fight a battle in which the personal risks are so large and the chances of success seem so remote." (Or, more accurately, nonexistent.) Athletic abuses in education are essentially protected in perpetuity precisely because everybody else looks to the presidents to do something, and they can't. Or they won't. So the fix is forever in.
But Duderstadt has written, with feeling, a very frank book that lays out the case against big-time football and basketball. It doesn't much improve on the same argument we've been hearing for 132 years, and it includes the usual wistful register of dream-on suggestions, but it is a comprehensive indictment, and coming from someone who endured in despair in the belly of the beast, it means all the more.
Another former college president, William Bowen, has written a much more controversial volume, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Bowen, who was president of Princeton, cowrote the book with James Shulman, a colleague at the Mellon Foundation, where both men are officers. What is striking about the Bowen-Shulman study is that it posits the original thesis that college athletics soil not only the ESPN-U's that offer athletic scholarships, but all American colleges. Their contention—backed with compelling statistics—is that our devotion to rah-rah school sports is such that it is tarnishing even our most prestigious Ivy League universities and elite, tiny institutions as select as Williams and Hamilton and Swarthmore. (At the last of those, you will recall, a veritable alumni firestorm was unleashed in December when the trustees voted to abandon a Division III football team whose most distinguishing characteristic was losing games.)
Using statistics dating back to 1951 on 30 diverse colleges, from Bryn Mawr and Tufts to Notre Dame and Michigan, Bowen and Shulman make the case that athletes have become some sort of insulated testosteronic mandarin society. Accepted instead of far better students, they take up large numbers of places and are even far more likely to be admitted than two other groups of sanctioned affirmative-action candidates—alumni legacies and racial minorities. Moreover, athletes get so wrapped up in sports that they don't perform up to their limited predicted academic potential, and they tend to segregate themselves from the rest of collegiate life.
The trend is toward even greater differentiation and separation. The Bowen-Shulman figures show, for example, that college athletes in 1951 were very much like their fellow students, both in their broad interests and their grades. Also, to prove that you can't be a little bit pregnant, Bowen and Shulman offer conclusive statistics showing that women athletes at all schools are beginning to mimic the behavior of male athletes.
Although written coolly, almost too dispassionately, The Game of Life presents the greatest condemnation of college sports—of the academic athletic life—ever tendered, It may well be the most important book about sports of this generation, on a par with Andrew Jennings's The Lords of the Rings, which exposed the IOC as an insider's scam. Precisely because the book is so damning and controversial, the athletic establishment is already beginning to fire back. The most vocal critic is, in fact, a close and longtime friend and former colleague of Bowen's, Gary Walters, the Princeton athletic director.
Walters maintains that any number of statistics in the book are taken out of context—that athletes, for example, are not admitted in the high percentages claimed, because coaches submit only candidates most likely to be accepted. What single group traditionally gets the highest percentage of affirmative-action admittance, Walters asks. Not athletes, he says. No. The dirty little secret is that it's faculty children. Hmmm.
Furthermore, he argues, we should not be surprised that athletes have lower grades, because so many of them come from backgrounds in which they have not had sufficient academic or family support. Finally, Walters argues, Bowen and Shulman have romanticized the cohort they studied from the 1950s, when grades were lower across the board and preppies had the path into places like Princeton greased for them. To compare today's collegiate meritocracy with mid-century America's old-school-tie aristocracy is, Walters says, specious.