The economics of big time college sports

The role of money in big time college sports and what that says about the relationship between academics, amateurism and exploitation has been much discussed since Taylor Branch’s essay in the Atlantic Monthly.

I agree with Harold Pollack that some of the moralistic rhetoric used to discuss this issue is not only over the top, but it diverts attention from understanding the incentives that have produced the current system.  My colleague at Duke, Charlie Clotfelter has a great book, Big Time Sports in American Universities that anyone interested in the economics of sports and/or the modern university should read. Charlie focuses on the incentives that have lead honorable academic leaders to not only accept, but to construct the system that now exists.  In short, there are costs and benefits of big time college sports that he carefully and dispassionately lays out. In doing so, he provides a far more sober account of how hard it will be to change the current system.

I was on Duke’s academic council last year, and the meeting where Charlie presented to this faculty group was easily the most interesting and produced some of the most divergent perspectives.  The example of the University of North Carolina’s $77 million expansion of its football stadium during a budgetary downturn was mentioned, and Charlie turned us away from the simplistic answers (they could have spent the $77 million on hiring new faculty and investing in the library) toward the more complicated truth: the money wouldn’t have been given for the library. And in the long run, such an expenditure could expand general giving to the University as the connection between wealthy alums and their school are deepened.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of his words about sports connecting alums to their school when I took my boys to a football game in Kenan Stadium on UNC’s campus (my alma mater; 3 times!; I would be nothing without what UNC has done for me).  As we walked in, the new stadium expansion was a bit jarring. However, when the Tar Heel players ran out of the tunnel to begin the game led by the captain carrying the American flag, I got goose bumps just like I always do.

Growing up, UNC was my dream school and it was the only place to which I applied. That dream was first born about 35 Falls ago, the first time I saw a football game in a much smaller Kenan Stadium.

update: I had the name of the publication in which the essay appeared wrong; now fixed. Taylor Branch has a new book The Cartel from which the essay was excerpted.


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