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Alan Reifman, Ph.D.

Alan Reifman Ph.D.

They've Got the Spirit, Yes They Do

American college students seem to love their schools' football teams

Nothing conveys the excitement of January 1 better than college football bowl games, so it seems fitting today to examine college students' relationship to their schools' football teams and the state of college athletics, in general. As James Shulman and former Princeton University President William Bowen wrote in their 2001 book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, " other country has anything resembling America's college sports programs" (p. xxv). And, though football violence and injuries (long a concern of mine) have been receiving increased attention lately, the pigskin is still the king of college athletics.

In good part, it is because of football revenues that some of our larger universities are able to spend $100 million or more on athletics (here and here), a practice that obviously raises serious questions about the relative prioritizing of athletics vs. academics. Yet, in what seems paradoxical at first, but makes sense with further reflection, it is at arguably the most academically oriented institutions that student athletic participation is most heavily concentrated.

As Shulman and Bowen document, only about two or three percent of the undergraduate student body at athletically prominent, large public universities such as Michigan and Penn State actually compete on varsity teams. Academically elite colleges such as Williams and Swarthmore, each with around 2,000 or fewer undergraduates, are in a very different situation. Considering all the sports in which universities compete -- not just the popular ones of football, basketball, and baseball/softball, but also sports such as lacrosse, golf, and water polo -- a school needs several hundred students to comprise a full slate of men's and women's varsity sports teams. Hence, we arrive at the figure that at some of the most academically intense institutions, approximately 35 percent of students are intercollegiate athletes!

Shulman and Bowen's book probes in great depth how varsity athletes seem to fare during and after college, in such endeavors as community leadership and career attainment. My focus for the rest of this column will thus be on students who root for -- instead of play for -- their universities' varsity teams.

School spirit appears to be a surprisingly powerful phenomenon. About a decade ago, I assembled a team of faculty colleagues from around the nation who taught research methodology and/or statistics in psychology and related disciplines, for a teaching activity. By having students in our classes go around our respective campuses and record the percentages of cars with school decals and of people wearing school clothing (among other metrics), we would give our students first-hand experience with field data-collection and produce our own numerical data with which to teach statistical analysis.

To add a multi-method element, we obtained what might be considered a reflection of school pride from a completely independent data source, namely each school's percentage of alumni who contributed money in recent years. The latter is available in the annual U.S. News publication, America's Best Colleges. Among other results, we found that if a school tended to have a high percentage of cars in dormitory parking lots sporting school decals and other logo displays, that school also tended to have a high percentage of alumni who donate money back to the school    (for those with some statistical training, schools' extent of car-logo displaying and alumni donation rates correlated .58 with each other). 

Not only might students' school pride be good for universities' fundraising arm; identifying with the sports teams at one's school may also be good for boosting students' social/friendship connections and reducing social isolation. Murray State University's Daniel Wann, perhaps the nation's most prolific researcher of sports fandom, found evidence for such social benefits in a recent Group Dynamics article, although the precise mechanisms remain unclear.

One of my Texas Tech faculty colleagues, Michael O'Boyle, suggested to me that campus sporting events (primarily football games) can serve useful purposes for faculty, students, and staff, such as providing a recreational diversion from one's work and unifying the campus community around a singular event. He notes, however, that his identification of positive elements of college sports should not be taken as an open-ended endorsement of runaway athletic spending.

An organization known as The Drake Group has been around for a little over a decade, with the aim of counteracting what it considers the encroachment of athletics into universities' academic missions. Interested readers can click here to visit the group's website.


About the Author

Alan Reifman, Ph.D.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.