During the late 1950s, in the small town of Carrollton, Missouri, James Duderstadt played football on his high school team. One day, a telegram arrived for him—the first one he had ever received—from the football coach at Yale University with an offer of admission. Despite his unfamiliarity with the school (he had thought it was in England), Duderstadt accepted, joining the likes of Joe Lieberman, John Ashcroft, and Bob Woodward as undergraduates. As a freshman, he considered football practice to be of paramount importance, which led to poor grades. Resolving to improve academically the following year, he chose to major in electrical engineering, one of the most demanding subjects at Yale, and regularly skipped practice to study. He eventually quit the team, prompting the local newspaper to call him crazy—an assessment with which most of his coaches and teammates agreed.
As it turns out, Duderstadt left his exploits on the gridiron to become a rocket scientist—literally. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in engineering science and physics from Cal Tech, specializing in nuclear engineering, and then worked at Los Alamos, where he developed nuclear-powered rocket engines for a manned mission to Mars. Duderstadt also happens to be president emeritus of the University of Michigan and author of the recent Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University, a sort of memoir of his tenure as university president as well as a passionate call for reform. Depicting the world of Division IA college football and basketball as awash in advertising by athletic apparel companies as well as relentless media promotion (witness March Madness), Duderstadt argues that these supposedly amateur squads should be considered de facto professional sports teams. As he told the Voice over the phone: “The Big Ten could be the NFL.”
From the mythologized portrait of the student athlete in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920) to the media blitz that surrounded the Fab Five, the flamboyant starters of the Michigan basketball team in the early ’90s, college athletics has long fascinated the American public. Outfitted in their signature baggy shorts, dark socks, and black shoes, the Fab Five reached the Final Four in consecutive years and featured such future NBA standouts as Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber and Indiana Pacers point guard Jalen Rose. They became famous for bringing “street-culture style” to college basketball, including a penchant for trash-talking on the court and unabashed arrogance off it (asked whether they could win the NCAA championship four times in a row, the Fab Five replied in spitfire succession: “Yes-Yes-Yes-Yes-Yes”). Their displays of what Duderstadt terms “in-your-face basketball” led one sportswriter to label the Fab Five “the epitome of classless behavior.” Duderstadt acknowledges that the allure of Michigan athletics can be a “useful recruiting tool” not only for athletes but also academically inclined students who want to attend the Rose Bowl or Final Four, if only as spectators. Yet, while presiding over one of the most celebrated college basketball teams in history, Duderstadt “woke up every morning dreading opening the newspapers.” With eight years’ worth of hindsight, he concludes that the Fab Five phenomenon proved “out of control”: “It was an enormous distraction, and the time and energy it took for damage control could have been spent on fundraising. And it probably did damage to the image of Michigan as a top research university.”
Sitting in one of the plush, finely decorated conference rooms at the offices of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation nestled on East 62nd Street, James Shulman, a Renaissance literature scholar and the institution’s financial and administrative officer, talks about the project that lured him away from a management consulting firm in 1994. In the wake of the 1993 backlash over the proposed discontinuation of the varsity wrestling program at Princeton, William Bowen, the head of the Mellon Foundation and the university’s former president, began compiling a database that would put issues relating to intercollegiate athletics in perspective. It would track survey data and student records of approximately 90,000 undergraduate students who matriculated in 1951, 1976, and 1989 at 30 athletically competitive and academically selective schools, ranging from Division IA public universities such as UNC Chapel Hill to Division III coed liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore. In 1998 the database provided the basis for The Shape of the River, a book examining race in the admissions process, which Bowen coauthored with Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. Earlier this year, Shulman and Bowen published The Game of Life—the fulfillment of the database’s original purpose.
Armed with an avalanche of data, the authors cast doubt on some prevailing myths about college athletics. For instance, they challenge the widespread notion that athletic recruitment significantly increases racial diversity on campus, finding that the removal of the athletic contribution to diversity would have lowered the percentage of African American men at schools by only 1 percent in 1989. The Game of Life also undermines the myth that successful teams, particularly winning football teams, lead to financial windfalls for universities in the form of alumni donations. As Duderstadt informs us, the athletic department at Michigan suffered an operating deficit of $2.8 million in the 1998-99 fiscal year, when the football team won the Citrus Bowl.
Shulman and Bowen also demonstrate the vast changes that have occurred since Duderstadt’s days playing linebacker. The typical student athletes of today differ substantially from their peers and predecessors; they usually arrive on campus with lower academic qualifications, do not take advantage of educational opportunities, and do not necessarily provide more leadership after graduation. Using admissions data from a non-scholarship school representative of the database, the authors observe admissions trends and discover that in 1999, a recruited male athlete enjoyed a 48 percent statistical edge over a non-athlete with the same SAT scores, compared to 25 percent for male legacy students and 18 percent for male minorities. (Likewise, female athletes held a 53 percent advantage.) If we consider the educational mission of a college or university to be the promotion of learning for its own sake and the obligation to provide educational opportunities to students who will capitalize on them, and if we view a school’s admissions practices as a reflection of its values, then what, ask Shulman and Bowen, do we make of the preferential treatment of athletes in the admissions process?
Both The Game of Life and Intercollegiate Athletics have already initiated discussion that might bring meaningful reform one day. Meanwhile, Duderstadt testified before the Knight Commission, a panel on intercollegiate sports issues, and has been working informally with the Association of American Universities. “Change won’t happen through newspapers, but through people in key posts,” Duderstadt says. Shulman would be satisfied if colleges and universities deemphasized athletic recruiting and encouraged more “ordinary students” to participate in sports; at the very least, he hopes his book will “slow the divide between college athletics and education.”
But he also thinks that sweeping change would be too difficult to achieve. “You know, I have a one-year-old daughter,” Shulman says with a grin. “If nothing changes, maybe I’ll sign her up for lacrosse lessons.”