Corrections or additions?
This article by David McDonough was prepared for the March 14,
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In `The Game of Life,’ Some Hard Knocks
— by David McDonough
Consider the student-athlete. He’s that buff guy in
a letterman’s sweater with six cheerleaders hanging off his arm,
a brewski while a bespectacled freshman geek does his homework. Of
course, that only occurs at the Big Ten schools — we believe —
the teams that go to the Rose Bowl or compete in the Final Four of
the NCAA basketball tournament.
Not so, says the new study documented in "The Game Of Life:
Sports and Educational Values" by James L. Shulman and William
G. Bowen, published in January by Princeton University Press.
show that the gap between students and athletes on campus has widened
at all kinds of schools — and not just the big time sports
At Ivy League and small liberal arts colleges, the number of students
recruited to play sports has increased dramatically. And, according
to the book, those student-athletes tend to underperform academically
and fail to live up to their own expectations as leaders after
For Bowen, the former economics professor who served as president
of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, and currently serves as
president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this news does not come
as a complete surprise as it may to others.
"I had suspected, or at least wondered, for a long time if we
weren’t seeing an overspecialization in college sports at Ivy League
schools and liberal arts colleges, with people focusing on sports
to the exclusion of other things," says Bowen in a telephone
"Was it a good thing? I was prepared to be informed; to find out.
I didn’t go into it with a proposition to prove. I just didn’t know
the answers, but I didn’t think anyone else did either. There was
no data. Lots of anecdotes, but no data."
Bowen and Shulman, who is financial and administrative officer at
the Mellon Foundation, use as the underpinning of their book
detailed data" on 90,000 undergraduates who passed through 30
selective public and private colleges at three points in time —
1951, 1976, and 1989. Called the "College and Beyond
the information was seen as a way to study various types of college
sports competition. However, as Bowen explains, "the heat of
debate over race and admissions became so high that we thought it
was important to put that subject first on the agenda to and delay
work on the sports book."
The result was Bowen’s previous book, "The Shape of the River:
Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College Admissions,"
a study of the long-term effects of affirmative action, also funded
by the Mellon Foundation. Co-authored with Derek Bok, former president
of Harvard, and published in 1998, this study also presented empirical
evidence that reversed widely-held notions of its subject. As Bill
Bradley — the former senator and student athlete — wrote:
"Instead of relying on preconceived notions and conventional
about race in college and university admissions, Bill Bowen and Derek
Bok use facts to examine the record. It shows that merit and diverse
student bodies can be complementary goals."
Following completion of "The Shape of the River," the same
database was then put to its original use: to analyze data on 90,000
students who attended 30 academically selective colleges and
in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s. The sampled schools range from
powerhouses like Michigan, Penn State, and North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, to Ivy League schools like Princeton and Yale, to Division I’s
Duke, Rice, and Stanford, to Division III universities Emory and
and to smaller liberal arts colleges that include Denison, Williams,
Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr.
"We got such an incredible response to the survey — 75 to
80 percent, which is unheard of," says Bowen. The authors used
the data to compare athletes with other students, in terms of SATs,
goals, grades, majors, jobs, and earnings. They also compared those
who played different sports, those who played for one year versus
those who played for four, and those who played in different decades.
The tone of "The Game of Life" is deliberately dry, with
presentation of data, and numerous charts and graphs. But the results
have surprised many, and the book has been creating a buzz in
(the authors published a summary of their work on the New York Times’
Op-Ed page), magazines, and alumni newsletters around the nation.
One of the findings that troubles Bowen most is the
growing tendency for athletes to perform less well academically than
others, and to enter schools with lower SATs than the average student.
No surprise there — those conclusions had long been suspected.
But what is more startling is that the student-athlete, on average,
will perform less well in school than other students with identical
SATs. "This means," says Bowen, "that the actual grades
earned by the athletes are not only lower than the grades earned by
other students, because they came in with lower preparation, but they
are even lower than you have expected given the preparation."
The argument could be made that you could reasonably expect low grades
from athletes, given the amount of time they spend preparing for,
traveling to, and playing their sport. "But how do you explain
the fact that students engaged in other high intensity
activities don’t show the same drop in performance?" Bowen asks.
"It must have to do with focus — what’s important to you,
and what you are encouraged to do. Still, I find the growing
As the authors note in the book, both Bowen and Shulman are fans of
— and participants in — organized sports and competition.
Born in 1933, Bowen grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated as
president and valedictorian of his class at a small public high school
on the outskirts of the city. Participating in both basketball and
tennis, Bowen took his tennis seriously. Encouraged by his coaches,
he practiced relentlessly, and was runner-up in the Ohio state high
school tennis tournament his senior year. In 1951, the year Bowen
entered college, his father, a salesman for National Cash Register,
died. Bowen chose to attend Denison University, a small,
liberal arts college close to home.
For Bowen, who went on to become a championship tennis player at
the new data reflects a situation quite different from his own days
as a student athlete. "In the 1950s," he notes, "athletes
were no more likely to be in the bottom one-third than anyone
Bowen, who majored in economics, was the ranking student in his class
all four years, as well as serving as co-president of the student
body. He also worked his way through school, beginning as a dishwasher
and waiter, later taking charge of the student agency that managed
Denison’s dormitories. He played first singles on the varsity tennis
team for four years, and for two years he was both singles and doubles
champion in the Ohio Conference.
Bowen was on the fast track academically as well. He earned his
in economics at Princeton in 1958, and gained tenure at the age of
27, earning a reputation as an expert on the funding of higher
and the arts. He became Princeton’s provost in 1967. In 1972 he became
president — at the age of 38. The Princeton Alumni Weekly at the
time contrasted Bowen’s style with that of his predecessor, Robert
F. Goheen: "Goheen often remained aloof from ordinary student
pursuits; Bowen played touch football this fall with the
staff. While Goheen seems mildly interested in Princeton sports, Bowen
is an admitted sports nut."
In the book, "The Game of Life," Bowen offers
a dispassionate view of the college sports scene. Bowen’s new study
further shows that today’s male athletes, steeped in their own jock
culture, tend to differ from their classmates in terms of values and
goals. For example, athletes are more conservative than the average
student, and identify themselves with leadership ability much more
strongly than their classmates. However, after college, they are less
likely to end up in positions of real leadership — in business,
politics, and similar professions — except coaching, of course.
"The athletes talk about leadership; they say it’s important.
But when you look at what happens later, you just don’t see it,"
Female athletes also, as they move into the mainstream of American
college athletics, enter these selective colleges with lower SATs
and perform to lower academic standards. By 1989, women who played
sports were appreciably more likely to finish in the bottom one-third
than they had been in 1976. This is the down-side of Title IX, the
legislation aimed at equalizing the playing field for women.
"It has been possible to increase the number of women playing
intercollegiate sports and to improve the talent level of women
Bowen and Shulman write. "But whether these developments provide
access and opportunity to those women who are best able to take
of the resources of a selective college or university remains a
issue." Whether or not this means that women college athletes
will some day begin to get arrested at the alarming rate of today’s
male college athlete is ripe for speculation.
It should be noted that Bowen and Shulman are not in the business
of reflexively bashing big time sports programs. At all times, they
make it clear that these conclusions are happening all across the
boards. Bowen says, "In terms of student-athletes ratio, there
are more athletes percentage-wise and in absolute terms at Williams
College (the small liberal-arts school had 715 student-athletes in
1997-’98) than at the University of Michigan (666 in the same period).
In many ways I find Williams commendable for getting more students
involved. The unfortunate thing is that those spots go to people
specialized before they come, rather than people who are in college
for a number of reasons, not just to play sports."
"The number of walk-ons has dramatically diminished," he
"I asked quite a few coaches how many of their players who
contribute are walk-ons, and the answer is very few. The exception
is rowing. The last truly amateur sport — it’s not a coincidence
that if you look at the table that shows the SAT gap in sports, there
is no SAT gap in rowing. You can’t recruit rowers — Where would
you get them?"
The other major surprise in the study has to be the data showing that
college sports programs are a money-losing proposition. This is
that might be expected at non-scholarship schools, which support at
times up to 40 different sports programs. But the statistics show
that even the big-time schools can only hope to break even, and most
of them won’t even do that. A school such as Michigan will spend about
$50 million on sports. Even with television revenue, sold-out games,
post-season competition, and contribution from alumni, profit is not
"Was I surprised at the lack of profitable revenue? No," says
Bowen. "It will surprise a lot of people, but I always thought
there was a lot more hype about that revenue. Nobody takes into
that capital costs are real. It’s also clear that the NCAA data, which
is frequently cited, pays no attention to capital costs."
"There were a lot of presuppositions that this study shows just
weren’t true. For example, many people supposed that alumni put
on schools to upgrade the sports programs. What is true is that there
are some people who feel very strongly and they are highly vocal;
you hear from them. So you always assume, as I did when I was in the
president’s office, that there are large numbers of these people.
Our survey data don’t support that."
What the data does support, Bowen believes, is that
the facts brought out by this study exist and are not going away.
And he finds that most people who read the study agree with him.
"Their reaction? People are surprised," he says. "But
then they say, `Yeah, this is something we ought to think about.’
Then, of course there are some people who just don’t want to change
anything. And there are people with vested interests. But my point
is that the empirical findings that we lay out in our Chapter 13 are
just there, and you have to deal with them. You may not like them,
or may draw different conclusions from them, and that’s fine. But
you can’t make them go away. [The findings] are pretty reliable. They
haven’t been upset by anybody, and no one has taken issue with
The most important conclusion that Bowen would like readers to take
away with them is that ever-widening gap between the athletes and
the rest of the student world.
"It’s more and more a separate community," he says. "The
is that what we are seeing is a spreading phenomenon. What used to
be true of high-profile sports at big-time schools has spread to other
sports (tennis, soccer) and then it spread to the Ivy Leagues and
then to little liberal arts school, and now to the women’s
"The SAT gap has continued to widen. It shows that what I call
the athletic divide, the separation between the students playing
sports and the other students, has just continued to widen. Playing
sports should be kind of representative of the class."
"You know, when I was teaching, what always bothered me most was
those students who just didn’t seem interested. It seemed like a waste
of a place. Colleges are very scarce resources. In a way the lower
SAT scores bother me less than the fact that you get lower performance
from athletes with a certain SAT score than other students with the
same SAT score. The real issue is the best use of a scarce
There is a certain irony in talking about this in a year when
University celebrates its 100th year of college basketball. In a
as sports oriented as ours, the emphasis on college athletics may
have a touch of inevitability about it.
Possibly, agrees Bowen, but he adds: "I don’t think it has to
be the way it is now. The fun of competition is terrific and should
be preserved. I’m a sports fan and I believe you can have all of this
without paying the price that we are paying. What would have to change
would be competitive structures, less focus on national championships,
and less recruitment of the highly-specialized performer. My choice
would be admitting people who will take fuller advantage of the
opportunities of the institution. These schools are highly selective.
They have a choice in who they recruit. What I hope would happen would
be that like-minded people sit down and talk together — some of
that is already occurring."
"If there’s one point that people need to recognize it is that
there is a slope here, a direction. I’ve rarely seen a set of social
science data in which things keep changing so steadily in the same
direction. The trend is clear."
— David McDonough
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.