Game of Life co-author discusses impacts of college sports

James Shulman, co-author of a groundbreaking examination of college sports’ impact on higher education, discusses his findings at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, March 26, in the Keck Classroom (G52), Pettengill Hall.

Reviewed by National Public Radio and The New Yorker, among others, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2001) is the first study of college athletics based on hard data.

To examine athletics’ effects on college life and alumni achievement after graduation, co-authors Shulman and former Princeton University President William Bowen drew on the database used for “The Shape of the River,” their study of the long-term effects of considering race in college admissions. That information came from some 90,000 students who attended 30 academically selective but athletically diverse schools – ranging from Division 1A powerhouses to small liberal arts colleges – in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s.

The Game of Life,” Publishers Weekly says, “presents a lot of interesting data that contradicts the conventional myths about college sports. (Athletes graduate at a higher rate than students at large; even at the big-time programs, college sports are likely to lose money for their schools.) Anyone connected to college athletics . . . will find much of interest here.”

The data in The Game Of Life consistently points to an ever-larger divide between two worlds. One is an ever more intense athletics enterprise emphasizing specialized athletic talent, commercialization and a set of norms and values constituting a culture of sports. The other is the core teaching-research function of selective institutions, with its own increasing specialization and emphasis on “pure” educational values – all in a time when the good of society depends increasingly on the effective development and deployment of intellectual capital. This widening athletic-academic divide is the core of this book’s message.

While its authors don’t deny the many benefits of collegiate sports, The Game of Life cites surprising issues engendered by the growth of and changes in athletics, such as the growing tendency for athletes to underperform academically; the fact that sports programs at all levels lose money; and the reality, contrary to popular wisdom, that winning teams do not encourage higher alumni giving to their schools, and that in fact most alumni would prefer to see their schools place less emphasis on athletics.

James L. Shulman is financial and administrative officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His lecture is part of the Faculty Lecture Series at Bates.

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