A new book by Charles Clotfelter ’69, Big-Time Sports in American Universities, sparked the annual Duke Magazine Forum, which was part of Reunions Weekend in April. Clotfelter is Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of public policy studies and professor of economics and law at Duke, where he has taught since 1979. Other participants were Alan Fishel J.D. ’86, lead counsel for the Mountain West Conference and Boise State University on issues related to the Bowl Championship Series; Nancy Hogshead-Makar ’86, a prominent advocate of Title IX, professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, and an Olympic medalist in swimming; and Chris Kennedy Ph.D. ’79, deputy director of athletics and part of the Duke Athletics staff since 1977, where he oversees the compliance and academic-support areas as well as coordinating the department’s Title IX efforts. The moderator was James E. Coleman Jr., John S. Bradway Professor of the practice of law, who teaches criminal law, legal ethics, negotiation and mediation, capital punishment, and wrongful conviction.
JAMES COLEMAN: If you want to know what’s going on in college sports today, all you have to do is to read the headlines: “The Aggies Beat Irish for First NCAA Title”; “UNC Admits to Academic Misconduct in Football Program”; “NCAA Conference Realignment: Winners and Losers”; “What’s Missing for March Madness? Better Academics”; “As Colleges Compete, Major Money Flows to Minor Sports”; “Ambition Beyond Athletics”; and finally, “Kyrie Irving Is Leaving Duke for the NBA Draft.” The important questions that these headlines pose for universities such as Duke is reflected in the title of a report recently released by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics: “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values, and the Future of College Sports.”
We are fortunate to have here several individuals who have been at the very center of these issues.
CHARLES CLOTFELTER: I took it for granted as I grew up that teams representing universities like Georgia Tech and Duke would play each other in games with many thousands of people at the stadium, listened to by people on radio, and widely reported in newspapers. But, if you think about it, it’s a little bit strange—to have institutions that are dedicated to research and teaching and service to also be in the commercial-sports business. Well, they’ve been this way for almost a century. And in fact, the U.S. is the only country in the world that has universities that do commercial sports.
In my research, I looked to see if this thing really is a big deal, the way I thought it was when I went to Grant Field in Atlanta to see Bobby Dodd’s football team. Well, it is a big deal. Here are a couple of examples of the kind of measures that I looked for: I looked at a whole year of New York Times articles about any one of fifty-eight universities, all with big-time football and basketball programs; Duke is included in that. There were 601 articles in the very serious New York Times; 87 percent of those had to do with athletics. I said, “I wonder who gets more Google hits, the president or the football coach or the basketball coach?” It turns out in these fifty-eight universities, the average ratio of football coach hits on Google to the president was seven to one. Only with two of the fifty-eight universities did the president get more Google hits than the football coach. In basketball it was a little bit less; it was four to one. You might wonder what it is at Duke. It turns out that our football coach out-Googles our president by almost two to one. Basketball, it’s more: thirteen to one.
The salaries of football coaches and basketball coaches have skyrocketed. In twenty-four years, if you take inflation into account and you make these as comparable as you can, at forty-four universities, it turns out that football coaches’ salaries went up 650 percent where university presidents’ only went up by 90 percent.
You can look at entire volumes about research on universities, and you can look at research on admissions and new realms of knowledge and interdisciplinary work. You can go and look at entire volumes and not see the first mention of intercollegiate athletics. It’s almost as if this topic is verboten.
You look at university mission statements, and it’s the very rare mission statement that mentions athletics, let alone big-time sports. So that was the paradox that got me working on this thing. How can this be so big yet ignored?
ALAN FISHEL: What we’re looking to do is make sure we’re teaching kids the right lessons. Right now you have a situation in which certain teams, certain players, certain individuals will never have a chance [to compete in the Bowl Championship Series]. And I know how hard they work all year to try to win a football championship. And yet their teams are eliminated before the season even begins.
We teach in the classroom that you do your best, you’re going to have a chance to really succeed. And here, you’re kind of being kept a level down from that.
If we’re going to have athletics departments, it would be great if there was a way that they would actually not lose money and drain from the academic side. One of the ways for them not to lose money is to have some sort of playoff that’ll bring in probably close to a billion dollars a year, in the not-too-distant future, which would be then split among 120 schools. It would help tremendously with not only athletics but also with academics, with balancing budgets.
NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: We’ve known for a long time that athletes, particularly in high school, do much better in school [than non-athletes]; they get better grades, better standardized test scores, and they’re more likely to go to college.
Recently, a researcher named Betsey Stevenson did some research using Title IX, looking at what happened with Department of Education data. Before Title IX, we had very few women in high-school [sports]; I think it was fewer than 300,000. And very quickly those numbers jumped up. But they jumped up very differently for different states. When you take out the kind of family that they came from— urban, rural, or suburban school; whether the parents had a library card; how much education their parents had—even when you factor out all those variables, they got more education, they were much more likely to go into nontraditional fields of engineering, science, medicine, and law, and they’re far more likely to be full-time employees with higher wages.
So sports for women have been a real opportunity for them to be part of games that have made lifelong changes for the rest of their lives. And there’s no reason to think that the same thing wouldn’t be true for boys as well.
Right now with intercollegiate athletics, two sports [football and basketball], according to the Knight Commission, are a runaway freight train when it comes to their expenses. Yes, they’re bringing in more money, but they’re spending more than they’re making. And when you talk about revenue, that revenue includes donations. If you take out the fourteen schools right now that are currently in the black in their athletics department, the average loss is $10 million from academics, over into athletics—$ 10 million per year.
The myth is that if there was more money in the system then things would be fairer. This is where I disagree. Right now the SEC [Southeastern Conference] spends $122,000 per athlete per year. So they’re putting more and more money into fewer and fewer athletes, rather than expanding the pie. Most of these schools, particularly BCS [Bowl Championship Series] schools, could triple the size of their athletics department and still not satisfy demand. They’re going to a model that’s very expensive, and it’s all about recruiting the athletes rather than making a better athlete or making a better student.