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Volume 3, Number 11
December 2003

When we resumed publication of LiberalArtsOnline this fall, we heralded several new styles of essay to come, including reports from research underway at the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts. Here is such a report. Our director of inquiries has teamed with two other members of the Wabash College faculty to study the academic achievement of small-college athletes. We think that studying different populations - in this case different groups of colleges - is an important way to test key conclusions from research on liberal arts education. The relationship between intercollegiate athletics and institutional mission seems to us a very complex topic that deserves a more nuanced discussion than it has had so far. What are your views on it?

- The Editors


We invite you to read these responses to this article:

"What Kind of Game Are We Playing? -- A Response" by Eugene M. Tobin and Martin A. Kurzweil

"Disengaged Jocks: Myth or Reality?" by Paul Umbach and George Kuh

"To Miss the Joy" by John G. Ramsay


What Kind of Game Are We Playing?
by Charles F. Blaich
Director of Inquiries, Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts,
and Associate Professor of Psychology
Wabash College, Crawfordsville, IN.

Despite a century of scandal and reform, the troubled relationship between athletics and academics is still news. Usually press coverage focuses on briefly embarrassing episodes at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I powerhouses, but in recent years the stain has spread to institutions in Division III. According to the NCAA, Division III colleges and universities place the highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students' academic programs. *See end note.

In 2001, James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation published The Game of Life, in which they provide evidence that athletic practices can compromise the academic missions of all institutions, from big-time universities to small liberal arts colleges. Two years later, Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, once again in the name of the Mellon Foundation, published a follow-up study, Reclaiming the Game. They found that many of the most elite institutions in the country, institutions that are not tempted by obscenely large sneaker and television contracts, are violating their own standards to admit competitive athletes. That these institutions were willing to subvert the very practice that makes them elite shows the power of the desire to build winning athletic programs.

For those of us who teach and coach at liberal arts colleges and universities outside of this select group, Bowen and Levin's book reminds us that we also need to monitor college athletics on our campuses to ensure that our pursuit of athletic excellence is consistent with our institutions' missions. Despite our small size and insignificant media profile, we too are driven by the competitive fires that fuel sports at all levels.

Following the publication of The Game of Life, the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College began working with eleven liberal arts colleges in the Midwest to collect and compare data on the academic performance of Division III college athletes. Helped by a group of dedicated registrars, researchers at the Center gathered data on over 13,000 students. The researchers, Richard F. Dallinger and Robert S. Horton, found that although athletes at these institutions typically entered college with slightly lower standardized test scores and high school academic performance than non-athletes, they did just fine in their college studies. They also found that students who lettered in a varsity sport were more likely to graduate than other students. (Click here to see the full study PDF).

Collecting and analyzing data are relatively easy with today's databases and software. The hard part is giving careful consideration to the connection between the institution's mission and its athletic programs. Each institution has a unique history, identity, and ethos. Before faculty, coaches, and administrators can decide what constitutes a good or bad athletic program, they need to reflect on how that program should fit with the qualities that they value. They have to figure out what ought to be before they figure out what is.

Such questions about athletics are no different than the questions faculty can and should ask about study abroad, undergraduate research, academic majors, and other programs on our campuses. Unfortunately, faculty, coaches, and administrators tend to bring a bit more baggage to the question of athletics than they do to similar questions about other programs. This baggage comes in the guise of faculty members who dismiss the potential educational benefits of athletic competition out of hand and assume that athletes have somehow forsaken intellectual ability in exchange for their physical gifts. It comes with coaches who praise the noble virtues of student-athletes, but diminish their students' academic work by simultaneously requiring more and more voluntary time from students to lift weights, review films, and travel. This baggage comes as well with administrators who allow furtive compromises in admissions standards that are designed solely to recruit better athletes. Admittedly these are stereotypes, but we need to move past knee-jerk responses if our deliberations are to improve the quality and effectiveness of our institutions.

The first important step we must take is to judge whether data that point to failure for Bowen and Levin would point to failure on our own campuses. In Reclaiming the Game, Bowen and Levin focus on schools that have the most restrictive admissions policies in the nation. When they decry the pernicious impact of admitting unqualified student-athletes, they are talking about young people with the potential to be very good college students, whose SAT scores range between 1100 and 1500. Granted, they may have lower scores than many of their classmates at those extraordinarily selective institutions, but does admitting students with somewhat lower standardized test scores truly compromise the integrity of our institutions? Do our institutions use College Board scores as their primary benchmark in evaluating the quality of incoming students? Given all of the talk about the problems of such tests, it would be odd if we suddenly gave them unquestioned credence when it comes to student-athletes.

Of course, College Board scores have some validity in predicting academic performance. If athletes have somewhat lower board scores, it follows that their academic performance will, on average, be somewhat lower than that of their classmates. Indeed, Center of Inquiry researchers found this to be true in their study. However, the mean grade point average of college athletes was only about 0.1 points lower than that of non-athletes on a 4.0 scale. Stated differently, the athletes with the lowest average academic performance, male football and basketball players, typically graduated with a B average. This grade is below average, but is it poor enough that it truly violates the academic integrity of our institutions?

We need to remember that Reclaiming the Game focuses entirely on institutions that are college rankings all-stars. Those of us who teach at institutions that are not on that team should resist the temptation of trying to improve our status by establishing association by guilt. It would be disingenuous at best to try to join this elite group by aligning ourselves with their self-induced problems.

Bowen and Levin also assume that the mission of rationing access to highly prized educational opportunities to an extraordinarily select group of students unites the institutions in their study. That is a perfectly reasonable mission, but is it our mission? Is it truly our mission to ration academic resources to elite and gifted young people, or is our mission more inclusive? This point was driven home for me by an institutional researcher at one of the colleges in the Center's study. He argued that one of his institution's core values is to provide liberal arts education to first generation college students. On his campus, successfully recruiting a student who plays football and who never imagined going to a liberal arts college, let alone to college, fulfills his institution's mission even when that student's SAT scores are 100 points below the class average. Successfully recruiting such a student was a success at that college, not a compromise.

This argument is more powerful still in light of the Center of Inquiry's finding that even with lower board scores, college athletes are more likely to remain in school and graduate. Their graduation rate advantage was especially striking for students with lower grades. The question of whether athletics is a carrot that allows institutions to serve otherwise hard-to-reach student populations is more complex than the current hand-wringing discussion allows, but it is a question well worth considering.

Finally, Bowen and Levin are far more concerned about students who were turned away than with the intellectual growth of student-athletes who attended the elite institutions in their study. In their words, Each recruited athlete who attends one of these schools has taken a spot away from another student who was, in all likelihood, more academically qualified and probably more committed to taking full advantage of the educational resources available at these schools. (p. 250)

But more relevant than the spot taken is the question of how athletes benefit from their work and play on our campuses. Moreover, the extent to which student-athletes are committed to taking advantage of all that our institutions offer educationally is certainly related to the degree to which we commit ourselves to the academic progress of our student-athletes. Indeed, despite the concerns about the commitment of athletes that Bowen and Levin raise in their book, there is recent evidence that college athletes are quite engaged on our campuses. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement''s 2003 annual report, Division III student-athletes report higher levels of engagement than non-athletes on several aspects of student engagement, including student-faculty interactions. Unfortunately, Bowen and Levin could not incorporate this measure of student engagement in their research because only a small fraction of the institutions they reviewed participate in this widely respected survey of good college practices.

It is time for everyone who cares about liberal arts education to take seriously the potential role of college athletics in supporting our institutional missions. We should assess the impact of these programs on leadership, character development, and other beneficial qualities just as seriously as we evaluate the outcomes of the academic programs that support our mission. This effort will require much more cooperation and communication between professors and coaches than is familiar to many of us, but if we want coaches to play our game, then we have to let them onto our field. In the summer of 2003, Wabash College's football team traveled to Europe where they played one football game and toured museums and historical sites. It was the first time that some of those students had been on an airplane. For many more, it was the first time they had been to Europe. For every one of them, it was the first time seeing a concentration camp. These are experiences we would trumpet if they occurred in a college course. We should be equally willing to celebrate when our coaches and administrators value the institutional mission enough to embed those experiences within an athletic program.

College sports can harm our institutions, but only when we compromise our mission integrity to pursue athletic glory. If balance is one of the signature characteristics of a liberal arts education, then a student who spends all of her time in a chemistry laboratory working on independent research is as much at odds with our mission as a quarterback who spends all of his time conditioning, watching films, and practicing. Our stock-in-trade is students who break the mold of narrow excellence that pervades our culture. We want students who play football and perform in plays, students who crave literature and competition, and students who grow in wisdom and discernment from the many and varied challenges they face in and out of our classrooms. Let us focus more firmly and self-consciously on supporting that balance so hoped for in the mission statements of our institutions.

Direct personal responses to Charles Blaich at .


*Endnote: The NCAA statement on Division III athletics can be found on the Association's web site at


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