The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values

James L. Shulman & William G. Bowen
Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001
448 pp., $27.95 hc

Steve Lockwood

The Game of Life uncloaks an area of higher education that has been masked by hyperbole and shielded by commercial interests. The authors, both former athletes with fond feelings for sports, examine the effects of Intercollegiate Athletics (ICA) to help determine their value for today's campus. In what ways, and to what extent, do sports contribute to the mission of educating undergraduates? Their answer will surprise some, and outrage others.

Both authors are qualified for this task. Shulman is Financial and Administrative Officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Bowen is the foundation's president and was formerly President of Princeton University, where he was also Professor of Economics. With such clout, Shulman and Bowen have gathered information that otherwise would have been hard to pry out of administrators. Data also come from a restricted-access database called College and Beyond that was built by the Mellon Foundation with the cooperation of 30 selective schools who support ICA. This database contains "extremely detailed" information on 90,000 undergraduate students and student athletes from 1951 through the 1990s (xxix). The authors also "made extensive use" of linked data sets kept by the College Board and by UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program (xxx). This enormous mass of quantitative data allows the authors to test six long-accepted contentions about ICA.

Contention #1 is that excellent schools can be competitive both in the classroom and on the playing field. In support of this belief, many cite the example of Northwestern University, perennial football doormat in the Big Ten. In 1995, Northwestern stunned everyone by winning the conference and appearing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 46 years. As a result of this single remarkable season, the new president and several donors felt the school was ready to compete seriously with the rest of the conference teams. "Seriously" meant attempting parity with other league schools in facilities, coaches, and recruiting. So, Northwestern spent $22 million to renovate its dilapidated football stadium and to build new indoor training centers; signed the football coach to a 10-year contract guaranteeing $500,000 per year; and engaged in questionable recruiting practices (several players were involved in gambling schemes and were indicted a year after the Rose Bowl season on federal gambling charges [xx]). At each division of intercollegiate athletics (in ascending order of competitive prowess, Division III, II, 1AAA, 1AA, and 1A),/1/ colleges face more pressure to stay even with other schools in recruiting, scholarships, facilities, numbers of coaches, trainers, tutors, and victories (228, 234, 238). This is a difficult undertaking for schools that do not have the financial resources of their peers in the same division. For Northwestern, which averages 15,000 fewer undergraduates than its league partners, it has proved draining and stressful. The opportunity costs here are often significant; that is, resources that would have gone elsewhere are used to support athletics.

Contention #2 is that gender equity is giving women new opportunities to play sports at all levels of the educational system. Shulman and Bowen find plenty of evidence that supports this widely held conclusion. Except for the women's colleges, in the 1950s there weren't many chances other than club sports (like intramurals) for women to participate at the collegiate level. The Title IX amendment to the 1972 Omnibus Education Act has significantly increased the chances for women by mandating that women be provided opportunity equal to men for participation in ICA (see also 377n14). While vitriolic arguing (and lawsuits) continue (115-16) over definitions of "equal" and "opportunity," the result of Title IX has been a proliferation of team sports for women. When the NCAA saw that women's sports would grow significantly enough to be worth controlling, it brought them under its well-heeled umbrella. But as a result, women's sports and the athletes who participate in them have become more and more like the men's programs, with the attendant glories, problems, and opportunity costs.

Contention #3 asserts that playing sports builds character. There is anecdotal evidence on both sides of this contention. While it's true that Senator Bradley played sports at Princeton, so did double-murderer Lyle Menendez. Most psychologists believe that character is formed early in one's life./2/ So, involvement in ICA may not develop character as much as exhibit and reinforce existing character traits. Shulman and Bowen suggest that most student athletes come to college with such clearly defined tendencies as high energy, loyalty to a specific group (team or athletic program), conservative politics, and single-minded pursuit of a goal. While all these traits might be usefully harnessed for academic and civic good, the authors found that more often they are reinforced in ways that can be destructive. These negative outcomes are not intended by the athletic program, but are the dark half of those traits valued by precept and practice in competitive sports. The more competitive the level of play, the more likely the occurrence of negative outcomes at some point in the athlete's life./3/ For example, loyalty to the team often translates, in a business environment, into going along with the group rather than defending an unpopular stance. Intense focus on a goal is likely to produce the citizen worker who forges ahead with a plan even when a consideration of alternatives might develop a more desirable outcome.

Contention #4 holds that today's athletes are like those of the past. True, but only in the sense that both are called "athletes." Today's athletes are much better conditioned, nourished, trained, and coached than their grandfathers, as the steady stream of broken records amply demonstrates. But along with increased athletic prowess comes a set of attitudes and aptitudes which differ considerably from those of past athletes. The Game of Life also finds that today's athletes off the playing field often don't measure up to athletes of the past. They tend to have lower SAT or ACT scores (44), think of themselves as leaders yet assume few such positions both in school and after (192), underperform academically based on what their entrance exams predict (68-70, 146-48), and go to college with the primary goal of making a lot of money (56). On this last point, The Game of Life shows that, overwhelmingly, athletes tend to major in business (78, 80), with the result that many business courses are oversubscribed while many liberal arts, math and science courses are underenrolled (75, 152). This concentration of athletes in one discipline is most noticeable at schools with small enrollments, where athletes may constitute 20% or so of undergraduates (57, 269). In the 1950s, athletes (mostly men) were virtually indistinguishable from their classmates in aptitude and academic performance--if anything, they slightly outperformed their peers (62-64). Now, such an athlete is a rare bird (66-68).

Contention #5 asserts that schools worry about their sports programs for the sake of the alumni. As is true in politics, a vocal minority of alums can have disproportionate influence on athletic policy at a university. When Princeton dropped wrestling to contain costs and free enrollment slots held for wrestlers, a number of former Princeton wrestlers howled with indignation, ultimately offering to finance the sport completely if the college would keep it. Eventually, the alumni at Princeton wrestled an agreement for a privately funded program with no reserved admission slots and no University financial support. Why are schools so inclined to satisfy alumni? Well, they are satisfying only a small group of alumni, actually. Former athletes often wind up in voluntary leadership positions in the school's alumni association, where they often lobby for more support of athletics. Alumni leaders who were athletes are more inclined than other alumni (including athletes) to favor not only more support for athletics but also less for liberal arts and intellectual freedom. In contrast, alumni generally, including former athletes not in alumni leadership positions, overwhelmingly favor less institutional support for ICA. These alumni also want more support for undergraduate teaching, residential life, intellectual freedom, other extracurricular activities, broad liberal arts education, and diversification (socio-economically and racially) of the student body (201). Shulman and Bowen remind us that trustees and regents in their policy decisions have been unduly influenced by vocal minorities of athletic boosters, and that such decisions have the most pronounced effects at schools with smaller enrollments, like those in Montana. This influence is magnified by the increasing tendency of former athletes to give less when their school's team has a losing season (220-21).

Contention #6, the last--one which might be called a myth--is that college sports programs make money. This is not only untrue, it's a criminal fraud perpetrated on taxpayers. As economist Roger Noll shows in his 1999 article "The Business of College Sports and the High Cost of Winning," schools regularly do not record capital costs (upkeep, new facilities) as part of the costs associated with their sports programs./4/ If these costs are considered, no school "makes money" from its ICA sports--not even the University of Michigan, which reports $47 million in athletic expenditures per year and $50 million in income. This apparent profit of $3 million is usually swallowed by capital costs. So, a shortfall occurs despite selling out each football game in a stadium that holds over 110,000 fans. That's because football is an especially expensive endeavor; in 1998 Stanford spent $8.3 million, Michigan and Notre Dame $9 million each, and Penn State $13.2 million on football. For most of these 1A schools, football and basketball account for half of the athletic expenses; at the Division III coed schools, these two sports account for less than 20% of their team-specific expenditures (233). None of these figures includes any of the large amounts of money in athletic budgets that support "general infrastructure"--administration, marketing, ticket sale expenses, and so on. Nor do they include capital costs which, when added, dramatically increase the actual costs of ICA./5/

All schools are required to submit to the NCAA publicly available Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) forms which show athletic expenditures by category. But even these forms, by using averages, allow schools to mask the extent of many costs. And the several finance studies conducted by the NCAA and others have often allowed general fund spending to be counted together with revenues obtained from outside sources, making the grand totals in the revenue columns on the EADA forms meaningless for many schools (244). And some schools engage in accounting scams that rival those of tarnished firm Arthur Anderson to hide the amount of general fund support that they provide as subsidies to these sports./6/ The more general fund moneys that subsidize ICA, the less for other extracurricular activities like band, drama, debate, student government, and "everything from the Anti-Gravity Society to the Chinese Calligraphy Association" (253).

Duke's EADA form, for example, shows revenues exceeding expenses by over $2 million; but the authors found from Duke officials that the university provides the athletic department with a general fund subsidy of nearly $5 million. Ignoring capital costs in discussing the costs of ICA is deliberately misleading; since ICA are very capital intensive, "it is foolish to talk (and act) as if these costs did not exist" (250). No one so far has succeeded in preventing expenditures associated with ICA from growing, and what's worse, generally growing faster than other institutional expenses (254). "As a money-making venture," the authors say, "athletics is a bad business" (257).

Unfortunately, The Game of Life spends very little time assessing the recruitment value of ICA except for athletes. Knowing how much sway ICA programs have for potential non-athletes could prove helpful in arguments for continuing or discontinuing support for them. Evidently, the College and Beyond database doesn't provide such data. It also may focus too narrowly on schools with selective entrance requirements. While the book competently demonstrates the impacts of ICA on schools like these, it does not directly discuss impacts on, for example, NAIA schools. As a result, its conclusions risk being ignored by officers of NAIA schools. (See note 1 for Montana's NAIA schools.) But to ignore such persuasive data would be irrational. Like it or not, what The Game of Life has to say about the impacts of campus athletics likely applies to NAIA schools, too.

How might the study's findings bear on ICA in Montana? Shulman and Bowen list a number of consequences for schools involved in ICA, but the core message of the book focuses on the widening gap between athletics and academic performance, a divide which becomes more important "in a time when the good of the society is increasingly dependent on the effective development and deployment of intellectual capital" (269). The Carnegie Commission in 1929 examined college athletics and pronounced its two major defects to be "commercialism, and a negligent attitude toward the educational opportunity for which the college exists" (268). So the concern is not new, but has been exacerbated by intensified recruiting and the general expansion of ICA. Furthermore, the direct educational consequences are much more serious at schools where athletics constitutes 15 to 35 percent of the student body, as is the case with Montana Tech, MSUN, and Western. Coupled with the finding that ICA have become less and less central to the main campus scene and a long-term decline in student attendance at college sporting events (272-73), an obvious question is whether so much money needs to be spent to reap the meager benefits of a well-conceived athletic program.

Perhaps the benefits of competition and athletic involvement can be increased, and the costs reduced significantly, by a program focused on club sports. The idea is not absurd, and has been suggested by a University of Michigan president./7/ Let's talk money. Schools never seem to have enough to repair facilities, hire and keep professors, and develop academic programs, let alone to subsidize ICA. As we have seen, capital and operating costs sharply increase expenses, and along with scholarships and financial aid, coaching costs, and recruiting costs constitute the bulk of ICA programs' spending. If Montana schools scaled back their ICA programs, or (to go to extremes) converted them completely to club sports, the considerable sums now devoted to ICA could in the most optimistic scenario be spread among many other academic and extracurricular activities. At the worst, the sums simply wouldn't need to be spent.

In its Winter 2000 issue, the Montana Professor printed direct costs (excluding capital costs, of course) for most Montana University System ICA programs in fiscal year 1998, which can serve as a reference. But to take examples from this past year: Bozeman's renovation of its fieldhouse has cost it nearly $13 million, requiring tuition increases and other surtaxes, and still the school faces a $1 million deficit for this year alone (Gail Schontzler, "Consultants recommend higher athletic fees for MSU students," Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 7 Nov. 2001). Two years ago, when MSU-Bozeman fired its football coach (and subcoaches), it incurred the costs of the new coach (and his staff) plus new uniforms, paying both sets of coaches till the contracts of the old expired, an adventure that cost at least a half million dollars. Bozeman is also paying $225,000 to settle the wrongful firing lawsuits of two women's basketball coaches./8/ The University of Montana's participation in the 2001 national football title game cost the school approximately $150,000 more than budgeted, money it had to squeeze from some University funding source, money that won't be spent on, for example, theater or foreign language education./9/ In the 2002 season, MSU-Northern was embroiled in legal maneuvering to dismiss its women's basketball coach; no word yet on what these costs are, but he did not exit quietly, and legal contests are rarely cheap./10/ And these examples are joined by the worse publicity stemming from assistant coaches brawling in barrooms (Bozeman), football players arrested for theft (Missoula), and such other infractions that involve athletes--not that other students don't run afoul of the law, but when athletes do, the press is more likely to report it.

At times universities do decide that the financial pressures of ICA undercut the school's academic mission. In the Big Sky Conference, Cal State Northridge decided that it could no longer justify the $1.3 million it spent just on football, and so axed it; the state of Idaho may drop all ICA at its public colleges and universities in order to redirect that $13.12 million into academic programs./11/ But this is unusual. Due mostly to political pressures from constituents (alumni, trustees, general public, students), most colleges "cannot hope to adopt the kinds of changes suggested here acting alone; they will need to act in concert, and perhaps to form new competitive groupings" (304). This may be particularly true in Montana, where schools are desperate for enrollment and the state dollars attached. Montana school officials (and faculty, too) periodically justify involvement in ICA because of the additional enrollment it is supposed to bring.

At MSU-Northern, for example, football was reinstituted after 20-some years because the chancellor said his calculations showed that this ICA program would generate 100 new FTE students. Also, he announced that anonymous (!) community leaders had pledged $250,000 to help restart football, if only MSUN would match the amount. Never mind that The Game of Life suggests that public opinion shouldn't determine school policy, and shows this enrollment outcome to be extremely unlikely. If this enrollment argument is to be persuasive, it must be supported by data showing how many FTE actually enrolled because of football. But the regents did not require, nor did the chancellor offer, any such plan--despite pleas from faculty members to establish one. Thus began MSUN's annual outlay of $190,000+ in direct costs (Chancellor Bill Daehling, "A Proposal to Enhance Enrollment at MSUN By Expanding Athletic Offerings," 12 January 1998). An experienced division 1A president warns against football, saying, "If your school does not have it now, don't start it.... A season or two of 11-0 or 10-1 records and high national ranking will change the culture of your institution and actually damage its academic reputation" (299). Regardless of how optimistically we view football at MSUN, its chances for a high national football ranking seem even more remote than Bozeman's.

The implications and direct recommendations of The Game of Life favor reexamining the generally large proportion of school budgets devoted to ICA "in the light of what each contributes to achieving the mission of the school--and in the light of the other uses that could be made of the same resources if a more frugal approach were adopted.... Does providing an athletic scholarship to a swimmer (or spending money on a full-time golf coach) advance the mission of an educational institution in a way similar to providing a fellowship to a graduate student or spending more on the library? We don't think so" (301; italics in original). The authors remind us that no consequential steps can be taken to rebuild the relationship between college sports and the core educational mission without a clear sense of direction and pointed leadership from regents, presidents, and other chief administrative officers (307).

Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard and a longtime observer of college sports, says, "I was always amazed at the amount of wishful thinking and denial on the part of our fellow college presidents.... Perhaps they would be more inclined to resist commercialization and intensification of athletics if they had to face the facts and discuss them periodically with trustees" (308). Especially since the legislature in Montana seems disinclined to boost funding for the Montana University System, the time for such audits and discussions may be upon us.


  1. For lists of schools by division, see the NCAA website <>. Schools in The Game of Life study, chosen for their similar admissions standards and academic programs, are Division II private universities Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, Tulane, Notre Dame, and Vanderbilt; Division 1A public universities Miami of Ohio, Penn State, Michigan, and North Carolina (Chapel Hill); Division 1AA Ivy League universities Columbia, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Yale; Division III universities Emory, Tufts, and Washington (St. Louis); Division III coed liberal arts colleges Denison, Hamilton, Kenyon, Oberlin, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, and Williams; and Division III women's colleges Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley (xxviii-xxix). MSU-Bozeman and University of Montana-Missoula are Division 1AA schools in the Big Sky Conference; UM-Montana Tech, UM-Western, MSU-Northern, Carroll College, University of Great Falls, and Rocky Mountain College are all NAIA schools of the Frontier Conference (see <>).[Back]

  2. For example, see Hugh M. Curtler, Recalling Education (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), 137-38. Freud thought character was mostly formed by age 5.[Back]

  3. "Results of in-depth analyses of moral reasoning in sport have shown that athletes have a tendency to shrug off moral decisions as not their responsibility and that they also exhibit a self-serving bias when judging what violent behavior is appropriate." -- Andrew Miracle and Roger Rees, Lessons of the Locker Room (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994), 94. Many more examples of low athletic character in high profile appear at <>.[Back]

  4. Noll's article appears in the third quarter issue of Miliken Institute Review (1999), 28. Compare these other studies: Richard Sheehan, Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports (South Bend, IN: Diamond Communications, 1996); Murray Sperber, College Sports, Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. the University (New York: Henry Holt, 1990); Andrew Zimbalist, Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999).[Back]

  5. "Most athletic budgets make grossly inadequate allowances, if any allowance at all, for the athletics share of central services. But this source of distortion, in contrast to failure to account for capital costs, is probably more important (relatively) at a college or university without big-time High Profile sports" (414n38).[Back]

  6. "Oddities in accounting treatment almost always serve to understate the true costs of athletics" (413n30).[Back]

  7. Page 419n8. See former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt's book Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University: A University President's Perspective (Ann Arbor: U of M Press, 2000).[Back]

  8. "MSU to pay ex-coaches $225,000," Great Falls Tribune, 22 Nov. 2001, 1S. Partly as a result of this litigation, the MSU-Bozeman athletic director "retired" on 1 July 2001. The university continued to pay his $91,000 salary through 30 June 2002. For more, see Sean Kelly, "MSU Athletic Dir. Chuck Linnemenn retires," Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 15 June 2001. For a sampling of MSU-Bozeman's athletic problems, see Tom Lutey, "MSU athletics becomes fair game for critics," Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 17 June 2001. These are online: <>.Accessed 4 Jan. 2002.[Back]

  9. Kelly Whiteside, "Playoffs a big payoff for players," Great Falls Tribune, 24 December 2001, S1+. In the article, Athletic Director Wayne Hogan says the university's athletic budget is now $9 million. This is up nearly $3 million since 1998; see my guest editorial in The Montana Professor, Winter 2000.[Back]

  10. Tim Eberly, "Judge gives MSUN coach Emerick his job back," Havre Daily News, 3 January 2002, front page. This story also made the Badjocks web site on 4 January 2002 under the headline "Fired College Coach--Caught in Love Triangle with Player and Another Coach--Sues To Get His Job Back."[Back]

  11. Cal State-Northridge still supports 20 ICA teams and reports expenditures for them of nearly $7 million ("Northridge Cuts Football," Great Falls Tribune, 21 November 2001, 2S). Idaho's Board of Education president Blake Hall said, "We have to take a serious look at whether it makes sense to subsidize a small student population to the detrimental effect of other students. It may not be a popular choice, but we have to look at what our priorities are--education or athletics" ("Idaho Education Board Considering Cutting Athletics," Great Falls Tribune, 29 June 2002, 2S).[Back]

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