Charles T. Clotfelter


On his book Big-Time Sports in American Universities

Cover Interview of June 26, 2011

A close-up

Because my approach was agnostically empirical, the book ended up packed with information not previously known or associated with universities.

Here are a few examples.

I addressed a question that has been written about but never really analyzed: how does a media event like the NCAA tournament affect patterns of work?  I was able to obtain permission from 78 research libraries to access data from an on-line repository of academic journals on the number of articles viewed every day for 90 days straight in three successive years.  That analysis showed that work drops in the days after “Selection Sunday,” when many people are filling out their brackets; that those whose teams are in the tournament do less work; and that those whose teams win unexpectedly experience a precipitous, but short-term, drop in the work they do.

Another finding relates to the much-ballyhooed rise in coaches’ salaries.  I found that these salaries are worth the attention because they have been growing at a phenomenal rate.  Between 1986 and 2010, a period when the average pay for full professors at 44 public universities increased by 32% after inflation, and that of the presidents increased by 90%, pay for the head football coaches at those same institutions increased six and a half times, or about 650%.

There are many other indications that the world of big-time sports is wholly separate from the academic sides of many of our great universities.

At the University of Texas, for example, the football team rides to practice every day during the season aboard chartered buses and dresses out in a locker room equipped with five flat-screen TVs and adorned with a 20-foot ceiling light in the shape of a longhorn.

Though it might be a business enterprise for the universities, big-time sports is a source of sincere devotion for many ordinary Americans.

In Alabama, the state’s two biggest sports universities are the object of attention from the governor on down.  By tradition, the home team in the annual Auburn-Alabama football game offers two free tickets to every member of the Alabama legislature; the state’s governor traditionally received two dozen tickets to every Auburn and Alabama home game.  In 2010 Auburn drew an impressive crowd of 63,000 for to its annual scrimmage game, and Alabama had an astonishing 91,000.  And numerous obituaries appearing in newspapers like the Birmingham News contain references to people’s lifelong devotion to a team.  One among the many that appeared in 2010 stated, “He was a man of faith who loved his family, his church, his community and the Alabama Crimson Tide.”