Charles T. Clotfelter


On his book Big-Time Sports in American Universities

Cover Interview of June 26, 2011


As unlikely as it might sound at first, big-time sports provides an illuminating vantage point from which to assess the purpose of many American universities.

At the outset, I rather expected to find in the big-time college athletic department an organization that is highly commercial and wholly unrelated to the main purposes of the university. Commercial it is, but unrelated it is not.  Our universities are not solely academic institutions. In a real sense, they are in the entertainment business.

For these universities, being competitive in intercollegiate sports has the look and feel of a core mission.  For the flagship and land-grant public universities in particular, big-time college sports long ago became part of the cultural extension of the university throughout their states.  It has become the populist face of these universities.  Reflecting the importance that citizens and alumni place on athletic success, trustees and boards of governors insist that their universities do what is necessary to have competitive teams.

Big-time sports holds the potential for real benefit to the academic enterprise.  Although most athletic departments fail to earn enough to cover the cost of all their university’s teams, the evidence suggests that successful big-time programs help to attract applicants, stimulate charitable contributions, and bolster support from the community and state.

Beyond the campus walls, the same devotion that makes college sports commercially valuable also represents an authentic but unheralded social benefit: the sheer enjoyment and pride that citizen-fans feel.  Economists call it “consumer surplus,” but the everyday term is “happiness.”

Another social benefit of big-time college sports is its potential to teach by example civic values like meritocracy and productive interracial cooperation.  One of the forces that opposed many Southerners’ fierce embrace of segregation was another cherished tradition: college football. Coaches who treated their players equally and interracial teams that worked together provided much-needed models for the region and the country.  This teaching by example continues today, as racially diverse college teams play together with a harmony shown in high fives and fist bumps.

None of this is to deny that big-time sports creates troubling conflicts in values and tempts universities to be less than candid about the compromises made in the pursuit of competitive teams.  But faculty members and administrators do a disservice to themselves and their institutions by pretending that the sports-entertainment complex is no more significant to a university’s functioning than are its dining halls or drama clubs.

It would be healthier for American higher education to come to terms with its deep commitment to entertainment in the form of big-time sports.  The ongoing debate over “what is to be done about college sports?” could then be more realistic and possibly more effective.

© 2011 Charles Clotfelter