Book Review: Big-Time Sports in American Universities by Charles T. Clotfelter

In his Big-Time Sports in American University, Charles Clotfelter aims to do several things: first, demonstrate that commercial sport is one of the core functions of American universities. Second, explore how big-time college sport figures in the outcomes of the university (both of the negative and positive variety). Third, make use of recent data and statistical studies to support the previous two points. Lastly, Clotfelter makes some recommendations for reforms.

The book starts with an examination of how sports fit into the university. The American system of commercial sport within universities is unique and part of what Clotfelter wants to do is sort out why and how we end up with the system we have. This helps set up some of his main questions: why, given the many problems that seem to come with commercialized college sport, do universities keep these programs and seek to grow them? Where do (and do) these programs fit into the mission of the university? His conclusion is that commercial sport play important and crucial roles in the modern American university and these shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed. Part of his diagnosis for some of the problems of big-time sports is precisely because the centrality of college sports has not been fully and honestly acknowledged.

Clotfelter then turns to teasing out the consequences for the university of having college sports. He explores, using some clever statistical studies, the impact that college sports have on the academic outcomes, social and community outcomes, and financial outcomes of the university. Some of these are concerning (the negative impact on academic standards and progress) and some of these are positive (the entertainment and happiness produced for the broad community of fans). But in the end, not much of what he finds is all that surprising but seeing it connected to data helps sort out the various ways high-level commercialized sport can impact the university and what it does.
Lastly, he looks at some possible reforms. Some of these are likely to happen soon(ish) though with unknown consequences (such a name, likeness, and image reform). Others are more radical and unlikely to move beyond the pages of academic works.

One of the more interesting conclusions Clotfelter suggests is that while money drives a lot of what goes on in college sport, it doesn’t seem to be the ultimate end or purpose. That is, what he finds is that university leaders and stakeholders that support big-time college sports are ultimately doing it because they want to win. Money is essential to building successful programs, but the end goal is not profit, it is wins: “Despite the palpable commercial value of college athletics, however, it bears repeating that the primary objective of athletic departments is not to make for its own sake. Rather, it is to produce winning teams, for which money is virtually an ironclad necessity” (153).

I appreciate that Clotfelter walks a balanced line. He is quite critical of many aspects of big-time college sports, but also notes the value it brings to the university and society more generally. He brings forward data to help figure out both the harm and the value so that we can better evaluate college sport, but also to more helpfully target criticism and reform. Those looking for either a morbid focus on salacious scandals or enthusiastic cheerleading of the wonders of college sport will need to look elsewhere.

This is an important and helpful work for those interested in understanding the context of big-time college sports. It is not overly technical or mathematical, but it does rely on statistics and other tools of the social scientist. It’s not a casual, beach read, but it’s not a difficult read either. I could also see pulling specific chapters out for assignment in a course. With a little context, many of them can stand alone. In the final analysis, I do not think one walks away with a clear path to realistic reform or even definitive answers to the main questions about college sports, but the book, just as the title indicates, provides a solid foundation for understanding the relationship of big-time college sports to American universities.

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Filed under College, economics, Reviews, Sports Studies

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