Do College Sports Affect Students' Grades? A Defense of the NCAA

Posted by Megan Greenwell

University of Oregon
Last year is likely to go down as the worst in the history of college football. When a Yahoo Sports investigation in August revealed that a University of Miami booster had provided illegal benefits to players for years, it seemed inconceivable that the scandal would only be the second-worst to hit the NCAA in 2011.

Then, just before Christmas, a trio of economists declared that “big-time sports are a threat to American higher education.” The National Bureau for Economic Research published the study, which examined the relationship between a university’s success on the football field and its students’ grades—not those of the players, but their classmates and fans. Using data from the University of Oregon, where they are based, the three researchers concluded that students—especially male students—earn lower grades when the Ducks are winning games. “Our estimates suggest that three fewer wins in a season would be expected to increase male GPAs by approximately 0.02, or to reduce the gender gap by seven to nine percent,” the authors write.

Although there is plenty of blame to go around for college sports’ failings, the alarmist discussions about whether colleges would be better off without athletics—particularly football—are paternalistic and shortsighted.

That students are inclined to go out drinking instead of studying after a huge win shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it’s ridiculous to assume they’d be studying otherwise. As an alumna of the college with the longest losing streak in college football history, I can assure the researchers that we found other excuses to imbibe. This is especially salient once you consider the report’s expanded findings, which show that students who enter college underprepared are the most likely to see their grades drop after the football team wins. In other words, students who are predisposed to struggle in college are more likely to struggle when major distractions are present. Shocking, right? The researchers proceed to take their point further, asserting that a Rose Bowl-winning team (go Ducks!) threatens not just men’s grades on their Econ 101 final, but the entire American higher-education system. 

It’s all part of a pattern of ludicrous claims about how college sports are ruining America. After Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested for raping dozens of boys, some in the team locker room, plenty of commentators used Sandusky’s crimes as evidence that sports should not exist—a case that never would have been made about a businessman raping children in the board room, or a priest in the sacristy.

The calls to eliminate or “deprofessionalize” college sports existed long before anyone but the most diehard Penn State fans knew Sandusky’s name. Last April, notorious hater-of-everything Ralph Nader launched a crusade to eliminate athletic scholarships on the grounds that college players are no different from professional ones. That would come as news to the 100 percent of NCAA athletes who earn no salary, and Nader’s proposed solution would make many players unable to afford college at all.

There are plenty of problems with the current system of big-time college athletics, from the devaluing of academics to the plantation mentality that allows universities to make huge profits on the backs of unpaid athletes. But fixing those problems requires thinking creatively about real solutions, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Paying college athletes, or allowing them to accept endorsement revenue, makes much more sense than eliminating their ability to play in college. Getting serious about their academic performance, even at the expense of practice time, is a better response than forcing "student-athletes" to choose between the two. Requiring university athletics officials to report crimes to the police and getting serious about enforcing punishments for sexual abuse is a more appropriate solution to the Jerry Sandusky case than shutting locker rooms for good.

College sports provide a way for students to pursue their athletic passions even if they have no hope of going pro. Sports give students something to coalesce around, creating a campus community. And yes, college sports teams sometimes make huge profits, and that’s not inherently a bad thing (so does Warren Buffett, and few people think he’s evil). These upsides seem almost too obvious to merit saying. Let’s hope in 2012 we won’t need to.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user _Shward_