Charles T. Clotfelter


On his book Big-Time Sports in American Universities

Cover Interview of June 27, 2011

The wide angle

Like many Americans who grew up following football and basketball, I simply took it for granted that athletic teams sponsored by universities would compete in highly publicized games and that people like me might become emotionally invested in the outcomes.

It was not until I became a faculty member that I began to think there might be anything remarkable about the phenomenon of big-time college sports. As a professor in two research universities that also operate prominent commercial sports programs, I was surprised at the attention paid to the football and basketball teams—not just by students, but also by faculty, staff and local residents.  The depth of this passion and the bizarre forms it can sometimes take set the commercial sports enterprise apart from all the other activities that universities routinely pursue.

As a scholar of higher education, I was astonished at how many entire books on higher education entirely ignore big-time sports.  And I must admit I have been one of the guilty parties—I have written and edited several volumes about universities with no mention of big-time sports. It’s almost as if scholars like me operate in a parallel universe where big-time sports is absent.

Some say that faculty have little incentive to ask hard questions about their own institution, and this may partly explain the reluctance to deal with commercial college sports as a serious issue of higher education.  Although tenured professors aren’t usually too afraid of administrators, let alone alumni, they are apt to get icy stares from many of their fellow faculty and friends if they say uncomplimentary things about their university’s athletic department.

I suspect the better explanation is that, while scholars recognize the existence of sports, we haven’t considered it to be part of the essence of universities, so we don’t write about it.  Or, perhaps we don’t consider it to be part of what the essence should be.

But when one approaches American universities without such preconceptions, there is one unmistakable conclusion: in the universities where it exists, entertainment in the form of big-time sports is a core function of the university, right up there with research, teaching, and service.

So, in the book, I tried to imagine how I might explain to a visitor from another country what role big-time sports plays in a research university.

In doing the research, I have come to believe that the tailgating rituals, painted faces, and screaming fans associated with big-time sports are parts of American universities as surely as physics labs and seminars on Milton. In large part because of its heavy television coverage, big-time sports has become by far the most visible part of many American universities.