The Game of Life

James Shulman and William Bowen

Princeton University Press 2001

422 pp., $23.00

By Al Mattei


The pervasiveness of money in today's major college sports scene is undeniable. Its temptations, its corruptive effects, and its ability to produce a sense of entitlement is well-documented.

But, until former Princeton president William Bowen and the Mellon Foundation's James Shulman assembled the study, "The Game of Life," very little has been said about the long-term effects of the semiprofessionalization of college sports, from "high profile" sports like Division I-A bowl-eligible football programs to "lower profile" sports such as the Division III badminton team having to beg for some new shuttlecocks for the upcoming season.

Shulman and Bowen use data from 30 carefully selected colleges and universities, collected by the Mellon Foundation in a database called "College and Beyond." The schools range from football powers (Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan) to men's basketball powers (Duke, Georgetown, North Carolina), to also-rans in many sports (Bryn Mawr, Miami of Ohio, Kenyon).

The schools are grouped into Division I-A private and public universities, Ivy League schools, Division III coed liberal arts colleges and other Division III universities, and Division III women's colleges.

The data track students and athletes entering the colleges in three seperate and distinct eras -- the "good old days" of 1951, the "time of transition" when it comes to women's sports expansion -- 1976, and a modern class starting college in the fall of 1989.

Over the course of the book, the authors take the data and address several major myths that permeate college sports, including the effects of Title IX on athletic programs, the necessity of lowering admissions standards to produce a diverse student body, and whether winning programs help bring in donations, especially by alumni/ae.

To get to some 32 major findings, the book spends 275 pages' worth of text (including the preface, which leads into the body of the work), carefully unpacking the results of the data gathered in the "College and Beyond" survey.

Shulman and Bowen's findings range from the obvious (more athletes are heavily recruited than ever before) to the counterintuitive (winning teams, especially football teams, have no impact on donation rates to university).

Collectively taken, Shulman and Bowen find the following conclusion: "intercollegiate programs ... are moving steadily in the direction of greater intensification, increased tension with core educational values, and more substantial calls on the tangible and intangibile resources of their host institutions." In other words, universities are being thought of as more and more like pro sports franchises, and less and less as places to learn.

Unfortunately, Shulman and Bowen do not have a pat answer to the problem; "We do not know enough," they say. However, their nine major propositions do make sense:

1) Understanding that the gap between collegiate sports and institutional values is a failure to understand that athletics can contribute to the attainment of these values;

2) Reduce blatant recruiting and athletic abuses, especially in football and men's basketball;

3) Lessen the "winning is the only thing" ethic in high-profile sports;

4) Give lower-profile schools the incentive to consider more far-reaching modifications in football and men's basketball;

5) End athletic scholarships altogether, and start with the lower-profile sports;

6) In re-ordering a university's priorities vis-a-vis athletics, a university needs to take steps from its admissions office on down; making coaches part-time employees or make them work for the university in another capacity might serve this purpose. Failing this, schools can adopt the club-sport model, eliminating recruiting and paid coaches, and offer moderate financial support to the new student-run teams;

7) In order to achieve this, colleges need to act cooperatively and not "unilaterally disarm." It is possible that new confederations of schools may be formed of like-minded institutions -- from a new Ivy League or NESCAC conference to leaving the NCAA altogether;

8) Title IX should mean equality of opportunity for women's sports, not creating a uniform culture (especially one with all of the corruption) with men's sports;

9) Leadership needs to be shown by university officials if any reforms are to take place.

The findings are, of course, damning. The text and its conclusion reinforce the notion of what some have called the "plantation" ethic of unpaid college athletes who are on a four-year (or less) audition for professional sports -- or, for some lower-profile sports like field hockey, a national select team. It also reinforces the existence of the "athletic samurai" class that does whatever it likes as long as the team does well on the field of play.

One can take aim at the data behind the findings, and rightly so. There are only 30 universities in the College and Beyond database. None are from historically-black colleges, none are from NCAA Division II schools, and none from the substantial ranks of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

It is also hard to know if, collectively, the respondents represent the population of American college students at large. Respondent rates are reported to be in the 75th percentile of the data, but it is hard to know if the sample is accurate; a similar massive "send-back" survey in 1948 predicted that Harry Truman would lose the presidential election to Thomas Dewey!

Yet, the book makes several excellent discoveries which have proven to be true from press reports. One is that not only is the gap between student and athlete in SAT scores is sometimes up to 300 points. And, oddly enough, the largest gap within they Ivy League schools in the 1989 group of respondents is in the sport of men's ice hockey -- which, at the time, was dominated by Canadian players who are not "taught to" the SAT like American students are.

Another trend the data show is that athletes in the "high profile" sports are less likely to give to their universities than other alumni/ae. Given the choices offered to players in those sports -- either a lucrative pro career and its not-so-humble trappings, or a "general studies" degree worth very little in today's job market -- this is not surprising.

The data also show how women's college athletics has devolved to act like those on the men's side. While women athletes entering college in 1976 were high achievers and high earners more likely than their non-athletic peers to become doctors or academics, those who entered college in 1989 were no more likely to earn advanced degrees, or more money, than their non-athletic counterparts.

Regardless of what you may think about the validity of the data, it is hard to ignore the main conclusion of Bowen and Shulman: more colleges are finding their academic mission diluted with the ever-increasing financial pressures of maintaining an athletic program.

This finding goes especially for the Division IA football schools, whose overall athletic programs range anywhere from $20 to $50 million. These expenditures, per athlete, can reach more than eight times the per-student expenditure than for other undergraduate students.

It is a book that must be read not only with an open mind, but a clear one: the book is actually an academic study, very difficult reading for the average sports fan. It requires a certain dedication to move from the text to the roughly 50 pages of supporting data and 50 pages of footnotes at the end of the book. Just about every part of the text -- preface, prelude, endnotes, charts -- must be read in order to understand the massive scope of the problems facing college sports and the obstacles to their reform.