College Sports as Product Differentiation

01/30/2012 03:19 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2012

The spate of recent criticisms regarding college sports -- meaning the big-time revenue makers of football and men's basketball with few worries allotted to swimming or gymnastics -- center on two arguments: that their behemoth existence is detrimental to the university's mission of education and scholarship; and that their prominence in university life is new.

Neither claim is true.

As to the former, the growth of these two sports in the course of the postwar era also coincides with the emergence of the American university as the envy of the world. According to two surveys conducted regularly on a yearly basis, "Top 400 -- The Times Higher Education World University Rankings" and "QS Top 500 Universities," American universities have consistently been amply present in both: 20 among the top 50 in the QS ranking; and 30 among the top 50 in the Times Higher Education ranking. A quick glance at these American universities will reveal a substantial number of institutions in which big-time Division One college football and men's basketball play a key role, and have done so for decades. A

Among these are such eminent places as Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Michigan; the University of Wisconsin; the University of Texas; and Duke University. Yes, so is the University of Chicago; the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia that do have both of these sports, among many others, but where arguably they have come to play a less salient role in these institutions' identity than in the other schools'. Moreover, a brief look at much-discussed Penn State University will reveal that parallel to this university's growth in football prominence under the aegis of the late Joe Paterno, there also occurred a comparable, if not even more impressive, growth in this institution's stature as a leading research university on a national and international level. With the faculties of most American universities having become more accomplished, more professionally active, more published, and more diverse over the past four decades; and with student competition for admission having become keener as well, an argument can be made that today's American university is intellectually and professionally superior to its erstwhile predecessor.

Concerning the second point, there exists ample evidence that football in particular -- but other sports as well, such as rowing and baseball -- became central ingredients of American college existence by the early 1860s. As sport historians John A. Lucas and Ronald A. Smith have convincingly shown in their fine research published jointly and separately, virtually all the ills that we currently bemoan sports to possess in their corrupting the integrity of our university's educational mission existed in college football of the late 19th century: financial favors to sub-freshmen recruits; constant violations of eligibility rules; bowing to alumni interests and outside boosters; payment of professional coaches well beyond faculty salaries; sports budgets far exceeding those of large departments and even entire schools. Thus, for example, Yale's income from football in 1903 equaled the combined budgets of the law, divinity; and medical schools.

The reason for this was clear then and remains clear now: product differentiation! America's nine colonial colleges emulated Oxford and Cambridge which also included playing sports. But unlike Oxford and Cambridge whose product needed no particular distinction in the then still sparse world of British higher education (pace the University of Durham in England, Trinity College Dublin, and the four fine Scottish universities) , this was not the case with their American imitators. Here, the need for differentiation among a greater number became a necessity, especially with the considerable growth in institutions of higher education following the passing of the Morrill Land-Grant Act signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

Sports came to play a crucial role in these institutions' identity creation. When Columbia won a regatta on Lake Saratoga in 1874, President Frederick Barnard congratulated the team by saying that this victory would carry the name of Columbia to far-away places like Paris, London, Hong Kong and Kolkata. And one year later, Cornell's President Andrew White welcomed his victorious rowers with flying flags and the University chimes a-ringing. Moreover, sports proved a great social equalizer in that young men from rural backgrounds and modest means attending the newly-formed land grant colleges could -- and often did -- defeat their rivals hailing from privilege and money. Precisely because even then sports were better understood and more avidly followed by the vast majority of the public than physics or philosophy, Harvard's building its horse-shoe shaped concrete-based stadium in 1903 was much better known and more prominently covered than its 40 endowed professorships. This has not changed. Nor has the desire to utilize sport's popularity to enhance a school's name recognition and identity building. Sports became a unique fixture of American higher education. In this form, they do not exist anywhere in the world, including the higher education system of our English-speaking cousins. College sports have long coexisted with the American university's scholarly mission and will continue to do so in the future.

Andrei S. Markovits teaches at the University of Michigan. With Emily Albertson, he is the author of the forthcoming SPORTISTA: The World of Female Fandom in the United States (Temple University Press)