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This article by David McDonough was prepared for the March 14,


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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,"

says Bowen.

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

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