Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Data on Sports That's Hard to Look At

The American love affair with sports is well-documented. Nowhere is this love greater than football, which has long since supplanted baseball as "America's pastime". In its intersection with higher education, football has had a greater impact on universities (fiscally and otherwise) than any other sport, with top-ranked college leagues commanding as much media attention (and TV revenue) as professional leagues in other sports.

As important as college football has become, therefore, the release of a new study provides a sudden shock of cold water:
How Does Football Success Affect Student Performance?
The punch line of the research, done at the University of Oregon over a series of football seasons where the team when from just OK to national champions, is blunt and direct: the better your football team does, the worse student grades get. Not the athletes' grades - the rest of the student body.

Much of the Chronicle article summarizing this research focuses on the gender difference, which is both interesting and predictable (the effects are much greater on men than women). But there's a much more fundamental issue at stake.

Here is cold, hard evidence that a successful sports program provides a distraction which damages the university's supposed primary mission: educating students. If grades are an indication (and despite all of their flaws, they are, especially in the aggregate over time), the more successful the football team is the less learning takes place across the student body.

This is going to be a very bitter pill to swallow for anybody with an interest in collegiate sports - especially for university administrators with a financial stake in the success of those teams. I expect there will be much denial, and many will point out that "this is only one study". It's certainly true that, by the rules of science, one study does not establish truth - it must be replicated and expanded as far as possible. Hopefully that work will take place.

But I suspect that most of my colleagues inside higher education will hardly be surprised when this same result turns up again and again. And if/when that happens, we will see a very real test of courage. Every university claims that educating students and creating knowledge are its primary missions. When faced with unmistakable evidence that some collegiate sports (in particular, successful football teams) detract from that mission, how many will have the courage to do something about it? And how many will simply hide behind platitudes, evasions and falsehoods so the money can keep flowing?

I expect I'll be disappointed by the answers. But maybe a few courageous institutions will surprise us.

1 comment:

  1. This is on contrast to the well-known finding: schools with more successful ultimate frisbee teams have better educational outcomes