mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
It All Begins With Football

There is bad news out of Oklahoma this morning; as crowds surged onto the field following Oklahoma State’s victory over Oklahoma to tear down the goalposts, 13 people were reported injured, two critically.

This is one of many unhappy stories related to college sports that we hear each year.  Serious football injuries, poor behavior by varsity athletes, worse behavior by coaches, recruiting violations, exploitation of student athletes, special privileges for student athletes, overspending on athletic programs, fat contracts for celebrity coaches as adjunct math professors starve: depressing news stories about varsity sports are one of American journalism’s most vigorous genres.

There is much to deplore in the world of college athletics, including the distortions that Title IX has brought to the system.  Via Meadia deplores the deplorable as much as anyone else, and only wishes readers could see how elegantly we wring our hands as each sad new story appears on our screens.  Wring, wring, wring.  Alas, alas, alas. Deplore, deplore, deplore.  Repeat until Moral Seriousness is fully established.

With all that behind us, though, we go on to note something that is rarely discussed but needs to be remembered: college athletics, and especially the high profile football and basketball programs, have done more to make American universities the envy of the world than all the math clubs and science fairs held since the beginning of time.

Varsity athletics, and especially all male varsity athletics in football and basketball, are the heart and soul of the alumni fundraising that gives American universities their uniquely deep financial resources.  It is rivalries like the one that sent all those Oklahoma State fans onto the playing field that keep state legislators voting appropriations for their favorite schools.  Without varsity athletics and the intense bond school rivalries create among students, Harvard and Yale would not be nearly as rich as they are.  Public universities like the University of North Carolina and the University of Kentucky would not have anything like the level of private contributions or state funding they now receive.

It may be a sad commentary on human nature, but it is a fact that while America’s “culture of philanthropy” and its respect for learning contribute to university fund raising, the real engine that pulls the train of alumni loyalty has less to do with those factors than the much simpler and more elemental desire to “beat State”, that is, the desire of alumni to see their home university do better than its rivals.

I’ve spoken with foreign university presidents who have attended well meaning seminars on how to emulate the success of American university fundraising.  I’ve spoken to faculty at Oxford and Cambridge about the efforts of these universities to supplement increasingly limited state funds.  And I’ve heard many good ideas about contacting alumni, informing them about current activities, reaching out to them for various initiatives and many other worthy and useful ideas.

But if you want to understand why so many generations of Americans have sent so much dough back to the campuses where they wasted some of the happiest years of their lives, watch the intensity of the tens of thousands of fans who attend these events.  Look at the shirtless boys with faces and torsos painted in the school colors; look at the cheerleaders on the fields, the ‘waves’ surging through the stands.

American universities, those temples of reason (at their best), are tribes.  The kids bond to each other and to their schools in the heat of the intense emotions that these contests generate.  Those shirtless kids covered in paint, shivering in the November weather as the cheer their team on, will be prosperous, middle aged alumni one day — and when they are, they will still be stirred by the memory of the emotions and the loyalty that brought them out to the field.

If you want your alumni to give, you first have to make them fall in love with your school.  This is not about having better chemistry programs or more faculty with higher name recognition than the school up the road.  It is not about scoring higher on world indices of university quality.  It is about competition, drama, intensity, about hope and fear, collective celebrations or collective disasters, seared into young and impressionable hearts where they will never be forgotten — and where they will be annually renewed as each sport in its season produces new highs and lows, new hopes and fears.  Alumni watching their schools’ games on TV, or celebrating or mourning their schools’ results each week with friends, family and colleagues are renewing their ties with their alma maters affirming that being an “Aggie” or a “Tar Heel” is an identity, not a line on the resume.

This is why most of them give.  It is irrational and tribal love.  It is intense emotion, not a vague sense of obligation or philanthropy.  They want to beat State.

If you want your students to become loyal, giving alumni, you must turn them into members of a tribe.  You must make them fall in love with their school, and believe that they and all the other alums are united in a family.  Your temple of reason cannot rise to the heavens unless it is grounded in irrational love.

Newer Post Older Post
Features Icon
show comments
  • Kris

    “Wring, wring, wring.”

    Will somebody pick up the [condemned by a deity] phone already?!

  • jetty

    There are athletics at Harvard and Yale? Who knew?

  • Bruce B

    And if people weren’t self-interested, socialism would work too. It’s just not fair.

  • John Barker

    I am glad to learn there is a reason that sports are such a concern to university officials. I wonder what this means for the prospects of purely online schools.

  • WigWag

    “Varsity athletics, and especially all male varsity athletics in football and basketball, are the heart and soul of the alumni fundraising that gives American universities their uniquely deep financial resources.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    While it is true that varsity athletics play a role in alumni fundraising at some institutions and the preeminent role at others, Professor Mead exaggerates the importance that they play across the whole system of American higher education.

    While Harvard and Yale may have a semi-intense football rivalry going, the idea that either of these intuitions depends on its football (or basketball) program to be the key ingredient in its fundraising success is just silly.

    One good way to measure the fundraising success of American universities is to look at the size of their endowments. After Harvard ($27.5 billion) and Yale ($16.7 billion) the American university with the third largest endowment is Princeton ($14.4 billion.) While varsity athletics may be a curiosity at Princeton, the idea that attachment to the “Tigers” is the main motivator for alumni giving at Princeton just doesn’t make any sense.

    MIT has the sixth largest endowment of American colleges and universities ($8.3 billion); they have no varsity teams worth mentioning at all; how does Professor Mead explain MIT’s enormous fundraising success?

    Number 8 on the list is Columbia University ($6.5 billion endowment); if Columbia had to rely on the success of its basketball and football programs for fundraising it would surely be far poorer than it is. The same can be said for the University of Pennsylvania ($5.6 billion) and the University of Chicago ($5.6 billion)

    Even if we leave the realm of the most elite schools, the importance of a vibrant athletic program is, at most, of mixed importance. Schools like UAB, University of Arkansas, and Syracuse University depend heavily on their football programs to drive fundraising. Schools like Georgetown and St. Johns University (only a few short miles from the Mead mansion) rely on loyalty to their basketball programs to entice alumni to give.

    On the other hand, what about schools like NYU ($1.5 billion endowment), College of William and Mary ($500 million endowment), Smith College ($1 billion endowment), Grinnell ($1.4 billion endowment) or Boston University ($800 million endowment)?

    Professor Mead is right to emphasize the importance of varsity athletics when it comes to alumni giving. Without its football program, it is hard to imagine how a mid-level school like Boston College could ever have amassed an endowment of $1.3 billion.

    On the other hand, schools where varsity athletics are an afterthought frequently have development programs that are as successful as schools where football or basketball is king.

    Professor Mead is not totally wrong when he says,

    “This is why most of them give. It is irrational and tribal love. It is intense emotion, not a vague sense of obligation or philanthropy. They want to beat State.”

    But I do think Professor Mead goes over the top when he says,

    “It may be a sad commentary on human nature, but it is a fact that while America’s “culture of philanthropy” and its respect for learning contribute to university fund raising, the real engine that pulls the train of alumni loyalty has less to do with those factors than the much simpler and more elemental desire to “beat State”, that is, the desire of alumni to see their home university do better than its rivals.”

    In fact, it is the eleemosynary spirit that is so embedded in the American psyche that comes first; even before tribal loyalty.

    Americans are simply the most generous people in the world.

  • Kenny

    Often times I think big time college sports (football & basketball) are over the top, but you’re analysis here strikes me as correct.

    My only concern now is if big time college sports has to be so professionalized to be useful.

  • dearieme

    Sorta, kinda, maybe relevant: I notice that if you ask a Briton which is his university, he’ll name the one where he did his first degree; an American where he did his PhD.

    What’s that about?

  • JLK

    DR Mead

    I had to let out a sigh of relief when you went on to state the importance of athletics in school fund raising.

    As usual I must come down in the middle. I am from Oregon where Phil Knight, the founder of Nike and one of the greatest “branding” marketers in the history of business has established his home base.

    He was also a former University of Oregon Track athlete who decided to creat a world class athletics (primarily footbal) program om his own at his alma mater. He also attended Stanford business school.

    Unfortunately, while successful with football, (the Ducks have risen to consistent top ten status) that money ($160mil and counting) has NOT trickled down to the academic side. U of O along with their sister colleges have been stuck in medicrity for many years. Virtually all the rankings show Oregon schools as “third tier”

    Of course the real problem is that the schools reflect the culture here which is based on mediocrity. Knight’s company is the only Fortune 500 company left in the state because succesive left wing governments have driven the rest out with their obvious bias against big business, and, naturally being as Green as possible.

    And now Knight has threatened to leave after the latest anti-business salvo in the form of two measures (the infamous 66 and 67)that actually tax businesses for their existence here, not their profits.Larger companies can actually lose money in Oregon and still pay up to $100k in taxes.

    The other of the two measures managed to saddle those earning $250k/year or more with the second highest top rate in the country.

    So as Wig Wag says Americans are generous but only if they have the with which to be generous.

  • teapartydoc

    The love I had for my university as an undergraduate cannot, I think, be attributed to athletics. I did love the sports programs, but having spent my later childhood in the same community, I was already conditioned to that kind of loyalty. I came to love my school between the sophomore and junior years, I think, because of the sense of security and optimism about the future I had while there. It was also the time of the most intense religious satisfaction I can remember, as well. I wonder if the bond doesn’t have something to do with simply coming of age in a place and developing a permanent attraction to it. Indeed, I came back to that place and have worked there for many years, in part because of family ties, but also because of that feeling of security. I have also learned that while we can grow to love institutions, those institutions can never return our love, and much of the emotional investment is better spent elsewhere, not in contributing to an educational bubble that will hurt very much when it finally bursts.

  • Don

    Professor Mead fails to inform us that the game was played in the heartland of the US oil industry, in T. Boone Pickens Stadium. T Boone was very generous to OSU, at least when it comes to football. The endowment of OSU, for activities other than football…

  • DADvocate

    It goes beyond just the students. A few years ago, m alma mater, the University of Tennessee, go a million dollar plus donation from a man from another state because, as he said, he always like UT football. Where did Lee Majors get his stage name “Majors?” From UT player/coach Johnny Majors.

    My son is attending a small, academically excellent college on a football scholarship. We couldn’t afford this school otherwise. Any money I donate will go to this school (and some already has).

  • Gene

    In Ernest Callenbach’s 1970’s novel “Ecotopia,” an important document in the evolution of American greenie thought, the model ecologically friendly society he imagines stages an annual festival of mock warfare in which participants can and often do suffer injuries or even death. The thinking behind it is that tribalism and aggression are central to human nature and must have an outlet, lest those energies be otherwise diverted in more destructive ways.

    When I hear certain acquaintances complain about the large place that sports, especially spectator sports, hold in our society, I think they fail to appreciate the centrality of tribalism to humans, not realizing that sports offers a way of dissipating a certain kind of energy that might otherwise be put to more destructive pursuits. Unfortunately there is still a segment of society that insists on putting its tribal energies into politics, not football, and that’s the group that turns so many people off about politics.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    There’s an added dimension. Nearly every American boy has played football at some level. Whether it’s scrambling around in somebody’s back yard or calling an audible the the Big Game against the Big Rival — American boys learn from about age 8 to adapt, scramble, trust each other, make it up on the fly, and generally attempt to get the job done.

    I was in a 4A high school huddle where the guard, who’d noticed something in the opposing line of the big rival, suggested a play that led to the winning touchdown late in the game. The quarterback didn’t say “Who are you to suggest a play?” He trusted that guard, who conveys now conveys that story, but not the countless thousands of similar ones across the decades.

    The remarkable success and adaptability of both American business and the American military from bottom to top ALSO begins with football. You trust the secretary when she notices something and suggests a response. You trust your NCOs, and you adjust according to what they encounter when it’s gone kinetic.

    The Nazis lost at Normandy because so many of the young men making that landing had played football, and the corporal, suddenly in charge of 26 men, had the mental tools to make it up (and succeed) in the heat of battle. The Nazis waited for orders from above, or shot their officer and surrendered.

  • Tblakely

    Are the sports departments of big name colleges self-financing from various contracts with media and companies or do they suck money away from acadamia? If they are self-financing, are they obligated to turn over their monies to the acadamia in order to save ‘starving’ math professors?

  • Soul

    I’m more amused by how some people can become overly involved with college games. My father is that way. He can become so worked up that sometimes I have to remind him that he is over identifying, the coach isn’t going to call asking for his opinion or say dress up, get on the field.

    When growing up, for a few years our next door neighbor was the Illini football coach. He was, might even be, one of the most successful coaches in the schools history, for his short stent. Illinois is a stepping school to other programs. If you show success in coaching, you often leave for more prestigious locations soon. What I got a kick out of was how on TV our neighbor would be fired up about games, and overall the sport of football. When at home, the few times I saw him, the last thing you wanted to talk to him about was the game. He was a low key, different person. We had more talks about lawn mowing than anything else.

  • willis

    “Virtually all the rankings show Oregon schools as “third tier” ”

    Is that measured by how much money Oregon blows on administration and multi-cultural programs or how well Oregon graduates do in the job market?

  • Lexington Green

    Everything in American life that is not actually football is merely the continuation of football by other means. Once I figured this out most of the rest of the puzzle snapped into place. This is a concealed source of our strength and greatness. In the midst of WW2 our senior Army and Navy commanders were acutely concerned about the football teams at the service academies, and weighed in regarding which players to employ. They had their priorities in the proper order. They were focused on the foundations of our long-term power.

  • Nom De Plume

    With respect to WigWag’s point about well-endowed universities with a reduced emphasis on athletics, it should be recalled that college football started at and reached national prominence with those universities that now make up the Ivy League. I would expect that the endowments of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton did benefit from the combined effects of college football and compound interest.

  • Russ

    Always a big fan of the blog (and also of Hall), but I smell a bit of glassmaker’s fallacy here: what would people spend this stuff on if it *wasn’t* for football?

  • tim

    Caltech is wealthy. Caltech has no significant intercollegiate sports. Argument refuted by direct observation. Nice try, Aristotle.

  • Carolus

    A college is a union of athletics teams supported by rabid alumni and surrounded by some academic departments, forming a tri-partite symbiotic relationship cemented by tax deductible donations. The main product of a college is The Score, also known as the win-loss ratio of its teams, with an occasional and increasingly degraded academic degree thrown in for good measure. Abolish the tax deductibility of donations, and American academia dies. Oh, come to think of it, it already died in an orgy of multiculturalism, so what remains true is just sports. Pity, really.

  • Michael Kennedy

    I attended the U of Southern California, a well known football school. Football has contributed a huge amount to the school, both financially and in spirit. USC graduates take care of each other. My daughter is now a PhD student at USC having transferred from UCLA, our rival school, and she has told me that it is amazing the difference in spirit and attitude at USC. She has no interest in football but there is something about the place she has noticed.

  • Rob Mandel

    It’s more than identity. The reality is that football, and to some extent, men’s basketball, are revenue generators. Every other sport is a revenue loser. Yes, there are exceptions at some schools, where a particular program is uniquely profitable, but as a rule, every other sport loses money, especially EVERY women’s sport. Title IX is the greatest exposer of market forces as anything. WIthout that evil, violent, white male hegemonic barbarity (football) every other sport would not exist. But it goes further than that. Most departments get money from the football program, albeit indirectly. No, those elitist humanities profs, those ivory tower gender-studies deconstructionists, they will never accept such filthy lucre. However, they know in their hearts that when football does well and makes money, the school has excess funds to waste on their inanity. And I gather that bothers them more than anything.

    If you look at the competition for good coaches, and bemoan their multi-million dollar salaries vis-a-vis the faculty, it’s worth mentioning that going to a good bowl game and generating the millions in revenues just might be a far greater return on investment. And all those millions come back to the university and fund a whole helluva lot more than a new weight room.

    As the old saying goes, “money talks, and BS walks”. Football is money pure and simple, all the critics and complainers are full of, well, barbara streisand 🙂 🙂

    the best part of football, and I speak as one who played high school and college ball, as well as coached high school football, is that it represents the absolute best of al that’s “American”. It’s all about toughness, discipline, teamwork, and commitment. But more than that, what matters is not the color of your skin or your house of worship, but your performance on the field. One team is trying to go forward, another trying to stop them. It’s simple. You score more, you win. No excuses. It’s the greatest of competition. There’s no favoritism, no special privileges. Even in baseball, the home team has an advantage. Not so in football. (other than crowd noise!!) And the only color that matter is the jersey one wears.

    It’s quintessential America. Which is why the campus left hates it so much.

  • science professor

    Certainly tribalism is central to human nature, as can be witnessed by the many wars it has caused, among other effects. The question here is whether it is good for education.

    — American universities may be better than the rest of the world at fundraising, but they are worse at undergraduate education, particularly the athletics-intensive state schools. U.S. schools admit as much through their heavy reliance on students educated outside the U.S. in filling their graduate programs (except for those programs where students have to pay high tuitions, which are generally unaffordable for foreign students). Maybe if the legislatures in places like Oklahoma paid less attention to football, students at their universities would receive better educations.

    — Athletics forms a part of a system in American higher education which academic standards are lowered for students who can benefit the institution in other ways (primarily financial). It can be argued that this exchange is ultimately a strength of the U.S. system, but the tradeoffs are real, not “Moral Seriousness.”

    — Compared to the rest of the world, American universities are leaders in research, for two reasons: more effective support of basic research from the government, and better integration of applied research with industry, startup companies, and venture capital. These strengths are unrelated to athletics.

  • Richard S

    Old saying–Short summary of an American University: The undergrads talk about sex. The faculty talk about parking. And the alumni talk about football.

  • Whit Sours

    This same phenomenon was visable in the electoral and governmental politics of the Nation in the 40 or so years following the conclusion of the Civil War. Union Veterans through veteran organization were very influential. Politicians who had served, such as Harrison and Garfield, were able to recall shared feelings of fraternity and thereby mobilize a built-in political base. Code words and phrases, indicating that they could continue to stand and fight as brothers against those rascaly Rebs and Copperheads were very effective political tools to arouse the passions of Union vets.

    Interestingly enough, the success of these same Union Vets and the relative political and economic prosperity of the North relative to the South may have led to the focus of Southerners on the Football teams of the state universities as a symbolic and real substitute for the lack of power following the defeat of the Confederacy. This may explain in part the dominance of the SEC in college football even today (another part being the ability of school boys in the South to play outside all year long, giving athletes there a slight advantage starting out and a noticeable advantage by the time they are 17).

  • Kris

    Lex@17: It is indeed thanks to school football that the US won the Battle of Waterloo.

  • Anthony

    Identity, tribalism, and in kind charity (fundraising) signal feedback loop to desire for relevance – football (collegiate) captures both human quest for belonging and for status perhaps.

  • Kris

    According to tim@20, it is absolutely ridiculous to state that birds fly.

  • joe

    It’s is not a new phenomenon. The Nike riot in Byzantium almost toppled Justinian. Allegiance to a college football team has nothing to do with matriculation. I went to an Ivy league school, but have always rooted for Alabama, the only college in the state of Alabama.

    Re Whit Sours: Yankees can’t play proper football. Full stop.

  • rs

    Not one penny of public money should be used to fund athletics at any college or university, and that includes athletic scholarships. Then, we’ll see how popular college athletics really are.

  • Jim.

    “Fight fiercely Harvard, fight fight fight!
    Demonstrate to them our skill!
    Albeit they possess the might,
    We nonetheless have the will!
    Fight for Harvard’s glorious name
    (Won’t it be peachy if we win the game? Oh goody!)
    Be careful not to injure them, but
    Fight, fight, fight!”

    Mr. Mead, I realize that prior to your moving to glamorous Queens, you lived in the South, where this article’s analysis may be largely true; however, one only has to look at the very top tier (MIT, CalTech, and yes Harvard) to find dismal or nonexistent sports programs in excellent schools. My own Alma Mater has no football team at all (though our athletes do well in baseball, volleyball, and water polo, iirc).

    The playing fields of Eaton may have won Waterloo, but the corporate parks and university labs are probably a more important dynamic these days.

  • Craig Landrith

    Dr Meade,
    Having read your “God and Gold” I know how deeply and comprehensively you think about out culture. This piece brings to mind a tenet of my own philosophy which is that all of nature, indeed prehaps God itself, is competitive and thus manifests creative destruction, which means liberals, who want equal everything and little or no competition, are doomed to failure.

  • John Burke

    I like college football and firmly believe each year that Eli’s men will make mince meat of the Harvard line (wait till next year!). But as others have pointed out, it is ludicrous to attribute Yale or Harvard’s success in fundraising from alumni to football. My fellow Yalies have a strong attachment to alma mater for a score of reasons — and worldwide prestige in many areas of teaching and research attracts contributions.

    I’m also skeptical that high-profile football programs do much to boost state legislative support to public universities. To the best of my knowledge, the various campuses of the State University of New York don’t field many top sports teams but SUNY funding for the past 50 years has been constantly increasing and the system expanding.

    Sorry, Mead. Interesting idea but I think you’re wrong.

  • David

    Professor Mead writes: “If you want to understand why so many generations of Americans have sent so much dough back to the campuses where they wasted some of the happiest years of their lives, watch the intensity of the tens of thousands of fans who attend these events.”

    This would be more convincing if you offered at least some empirical evidence for the connection you see between sports-fan intensity and subsequent philanthropic generosity.

  • Kansas Scott

    Please keep “deploring the deplorable” because you are really good at it. But also, please keep pointing out the obvious that so many choose to ignore.

    I’m in Kansas and a proud Jayhawk. We have basketball and the whole university benefits greatly when it wins. Some professors seem to hate that but it has more to do with ego than rational thought.

    As you so ably note, we are irrational and tribal creatures. College sports can be completely out of whack but it’s a lot more fun and a lot more beneficial than how former and current tribes elsewhere get their kicks. Rock Chalk!

  • Tari

    I agree with your assessment of the effect of football/sports programs in our universities Undoubtedly true. Not sure it is entirely to be admired. Speaking as an avid sports fan, and especially CFB, I’ve been re-examining the effect of it all.

    Has football supplanted God to some extent?

  • gs

    IMHO WRM has a valid point despite his (possibly deliberate) overstatement of it.

    According to a perhaps apocryphal story, once upon a time a highly successful head coach went before his legislature and urged them to “give me a university worthy of this football team”.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    So what you’re saying is if it weren’t for over-zealous over-grown middle-aged idiots, there would be no higher learning in this country. Makes sense.

  • WigWag

    “I’ve spoken with foreign university presidents who have attended well meaning seminars on how to emulate the success of American university fundraising. I’ve spoken to faculty at Oxford and Cambridge about the efforts of these universities to supplement increasingly limited state funds. And I’ve heard many good ideas about contacting alumni, informing them about current activities, reaching out to them for various initiatives and many other worthy and useful ideas.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Before the faculty at Oxford or Cambridge listen to Professor Mead’s advice and beg the university administrators to take advantage of British tribalism by ramping up funding for the rugby, cricket or snookers team, they would do well to reflect on the fundraising success of British health, cultural and arts organizations. The sad reality is that these organizations are as bad at raising money as British universities are and sports has very little to do with it. Cancer and aids charities in Britain raise a pittance compared to similar organizations in the United States. Covent Garden raises far less than the Metropolitan Opera. The Tate Modern raises next to nothing compared to the Museum of Modern Art and amazingly the Royal Shakespeare Company raises as much money from American patrons as it does from British patrons.

    One problem is that Great Britain is a social democracy. The expectation is that the government, not students, will pay the tuition and underwrite all the other expenses of running a modern university or cultural organization.

    But it goes deeper than that and it is interesting to speculate about why the American view of philanthropy and the British view of philanthropy are so different. Professor Mead has written eloquently about the cultural affinity of Great Britain and the United States so there must be a reason why American citizens are so personally generous while British citizens are so parsimonious.

    Actually, I think it comes down to the second most important thing to Americans after football; that would be God.

    In 2010, Americans gave $230 billion to charitable causes (including higher education). 88 percent of those charitable dollars were contributed by individuals; 7 percent by foundations and just 5 percent by corporations. Fully one third of all those charitable dollars were given by Americans to their churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and ashrams.

    Americans are simply more religious than Europeans and there is very little question that religious people tend to be more willing to donate to worthy causes than secular people. Beyond that, there is reasonably good evidence that the tradition of philanthropy that characterizes the United States, but not Great Britain (or the rest of Europe) stems from the fact that the history of state supported churches in Europe is simply absent in the United States. In Europe, for centuries most nations have had a preferred state supported religion. While the plate may have been passed, the church survived just fine on the funds it received from the government.

    In the United States, for the most part that wasn’t true. America enjoyed great religious diversity and if parishioners wanted their church to survive they had to pay for it themselves. It was from this history that the American spirit of philanthropy was nurtured and in time it spurred generosity to secular not-for-profit organizations as well. First, Americans learned to tithe to their church; from this they learned to donate generously to hospitals, universities, arts organizations and the like.

    But when it comes to football and university fundraising, it’s not just God who is entitled to a share of the credit; Satan is entitled to his due as well. One of the main reasons that collegiate and professional football (and to a lesser extent basketball) is so popular in the United States is that it is the perfect game for gambling. I can’t help but wonder how many alumni enjoy rooting for their team because, like clockwork after reading the point spread in the sports section of the newspaper, they get to place a bet and enjoy the adrenalin spike that comes with it.

    God inspires the generosity; the adrenalin I think comes from a less laudable source.

  • BackwardsBoy

    As a product of the great state of Alabama, I know that the Alpha and Omega of Life is contained in the Option Offense, the Screen Pass and the Wildcat Formation, along with Speedy Cornerbacks and the Men-Mountains of Nose Tackles. Kickers, maybe not so much.

    The sense of belonging that was once embodied within our government is gone, replaced with an overwhelming sense that we are being governed by our enemies (accurately so, sadly). This sense of belonging is so strong that we’ll seek it out. Since it is no longer in Washington, we find it in other places, and the innocence of friendly competition is currently that place.

    Thankfully, recent events are the exception rather than the rule.

  • John Pepple

    @Rob Mandel: I’ve read about many studies showing that football programs are in the red, so many that I don’t even bother to pay attention to them anymore. I thought by now that everyone had heard about this. Face it, football is a very expensive sport, and most of the money received is plowed right back into football.

    As for football’s being quintessentially American, prove it. This is a sport in which lots of players don’t even get to touch the ball. Why is that quintessentially American? This is a sport that is basically the preserve of big guys. Why is that quintessentially American?

    As for the left hating it, it ought to hate it, but it doesn’t. I wrote an entire book complaining about this hypocrisy.

  • Whit Sours

    College athletics matter a GREAT deal to state legislatures and elected executives.
    Each dollar generated for any department from the exploits of a public universities athletic program is a dollar the legislature potentially doesn’t have to allocate.

    When it appeared that Virginia Tech may not get a much desired invitation to the ACC about a decade ago (which had higher exposure, lower expenses for sports travel and research implications), the Governor stepped in and among other things, put pressure on the President of UVA to support Tech’s bid for invitation. That’s one example off the top of my head. Politicians are very much aware of how sports affect universities and their state as a whole.

  • Nate Whilk

    I think we have to take a much deeper look at the issue.

    Why did the students riot when Paterno was fired?

    Why did the students riot when Bobby Knight was fired?

    Why was there a small riot in Chicago when the Bulls won their third championship?

    Why do these things happen AT ALL?

    Why are people so obsessed with spectator sports that it takes up almost all of their time to the detriment of their families?

    Something is fundamentally wrong and we should be trying to find out what it is.

    “If you want your students to become loyal, giving alumni, you must turn them into members of a tribe. You must make them fall in love with their school, and believe that they and all the other alums are united in a family. Your temple of reason cannot rise to the heavens unless it is grounded in irrational love.”

    I submit irrational love is a sandy base for a temple of reason, and the temple WILL fall. Frankly, you make sports sound like a cult. And maybe it really is.

  • Rick

    There’s a great example of what Professor Mead says in a small, Midwestern, Catholic university that became one of the most famous in the world (and a top tier school with a massive endowment) thanks to that silly little game.

  • Kenneth P. Katz

    For my undergraduate degree, I attended MIT. I don’t think that the lack of a big-time athletic program hurt MIT. For my graduate degree, I attended the University of Michigan, which has a big-time athletic program. Even so, if the Michigan athletic program disappeared tomorrow, I don’t think that it would have one iota of bad effect on the engineering school.

    Big-time athletics definitely builds the coffers of the athletic program and fills the pockets of athletic program employees. Any connection between the big-time athletics and the accomplishment of the core mission of the university is rather more tenuous.

  • Toni

    True story: I was on an airplane somewhere and sat next to a physicist from Oxford. I said something about Cambridge, and he quickly said, “Oxford is older.” Yeah — 12th century vs. 13th!

    Another true story: When I was at Rice U. in the 1970s, the football team was still in the same conference as UT, the Aggies and LSU. (It was said that the LSU game was the only one at which the smell of booze overcame the smell of pot.) Rice was phasing out the easier curriculum it had had for football players. Most Rice students went to the games to see the funny, improvisational Marching Owl Band, aka the MOB. After the incident mentioned in the ESPN piece below, angry Aggies surrounded the MOB in the stadium afterward. Food service trucks were sent in to get the band out safely.

    My point (and I do have one) is that the MOB, now also aka the MOBsters, has now become a selling point for Rice for musically inclined applicants. That is, in the absence of a religious-like fervor for sports teams, higher education can find other ways to compete. Maybe Oxbridge needs competing improv troups.

    In Sept., UT had the MOB come make fun of the Aggies for leaving whatever UT’s football conference is. This also tells a bit of its irreverent history.

    For the curious, here you can see the MOBsters celebrating Houston’s current mayor.

  • Andy Freeman

    John Hennessy thinks that Stanford’s football program is profitable. He happens to be Stanford’s president and ran the engineering school, which is pretty good by world standards.

    If you’re arguing that he’s wrong, how about some evidence?

  • Rich Rostrom

    The tribalism of American college sports pulls in even foreign students. In Paper Money, “Adam Smith” (George Goodman) wrote of how football season was occasion for trash-talking disputes between oil ministry bureaucrats in Arab kingdoms – because so many were graduates of Texas, USC, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, etc.

    One year, the president of USC went on a fund-raising tour to Saudi Arabia. He brought the highlight film of that year’s USC football season, which culminated in a comeback win against Notre Dame (five second-half touchdowns).

    He showed it for a private-home gathering of Saudi magnates who were USC grads. The Saudis cheered wildly for every USC score, and at the end, the host got up and shouted “Allah is a Trojan!”

  • Fenster Moop

    I am a big admirer and regular reader of this column. But this article has me worried that you might be blowing smoke more than I thought, since you clearly seem to be blowing it here. You make awfully grand statements, backed up by not a shred of evidence. It’s an oddly ideological statement from one I usually think of as hard-headed.

    Of course it is true that historically athletics have formed an integral part of the special bond colleges make with students, alumni an donors. But that’s just a fact that needs to be put into context, and everything is relative. Is athletics in fact as key a bonding agent as you assume? Does it lead as directly to big donations and appropriations as you assert? “Athletics has been important” is a true statement, but is it true enough to float your grand conclusions? Hmmm . . . I doubt it. The fundraisers I’ve known recognize the appeal of athletics but whether their appeal causes enough dough to come across the transom to cover costs and produce a net benefit to the institution is another matter altogether.

    And therein lies the problem. All well and good to make a generalized historical assertion that sports rivalries have had their upsides. But at the moment universities are faced with very specific financial problems related to athletics–in essence the cost base of a mini-NFL grafted onto an academic program. Most university CFOs will tell you that, while some big athletics programs make money, most are a sucker’s bet. So fundraising programs chase that big $2 million donation for a $10 million field house, finding themselves unable to say no to the gift and having to shovel the difference in out of tuition.

    It just sounds to me like you are all misty eyed and romantic about a phenomenon that calls for your usual rigor.

  • Amy

    I am disappointed by the absence of data in this article in support of the assertion that athletics programs form the basis of higher education philanthropy.

    Because the thrust of this article flies in the face of my own direct experience working in higher education philanthropy, I decided to do some research. What I found were studies (including one commissioned by the NCAA, incidentally) that concluded there was no strong evidence to back up the claim that a winning football season (for example) leads to charitable giving.

    The best article I found in my search into this topic this morning is “The Relationship Between Athletics and Higher Education Fundraising,” which was commissioned by the U.S. Dept of Education Commission on Opportunities in Athletics.

    Here’s a pull quote from their conclusion:

    As Sigelman and Carter (1979) so astutely observed almost 25 years ago, “the lack of any relationship between success in intercollegiate athletics and increased alumni giving probably matters less than the fact that so many people believe that such a relationship exists” (p. 293).

    I found nothing to support Mead’s assertions. If there are studies published at CASE, IU’s Center on Philanthropy, or the Chronicle’s of Philanthropy or of Higher Education, it would be helpful if those were cited in this article.

  • Amy

    Here is a link to the report I referenced in my prior post:

    Link goes to a Google document containing the full report.

  • Amy

    Re the profitability of football programs and athletics programs in general, most do not make a profit. (I looked into this when the Penn State scandal hit.)

    Stanford football (mentioned above) netted a profit of $4 million off of total revenues of $21 million. At a place like Penn State, which makes considerably more off of its football program, the rest of the athletics programs are essentially riding off of the football program, so that overall PSU’s athletics is in the black. That appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

    This blog seems to be a good resource for pulling together the data on athletics programs:

  • andrewdb

    I think a number of commenters have missed the point in this post.

    A Division 1 program doesn’t need to win to create “brand loyalty” – although it helps. UC Berkeley last went to the Rose Bowl before I was born, but their Saturday afternoon football games, with the full program of marching band, cheerleaders, Rally Committee, tall flags, etc, etc. are pretty effective in “building community.” We brag about our Nobel prize count, but get emotional about The Big Game.

    I’ve long thought that the football program should be run out of the Development Office. The program doesn’t have to be profitable – if you are counting direct income and expenses it likely isn’t. But it is about “Marketing” not “Sales.” It builds brand awareness and identity, and that leads to the emotional bond to the school and the donations to the engineering (and other) programs.

    Finally, CalTech and MIT may not have sports programs worth mentioning, but they are also special cases – in a lot of ways, but particularly in how they have been incredibly effective (and light years ahead of other schools) in doing venture capital work with their alumns and commercializing developments created in their labs.

  • Fenster Moop

    Andrewdb: People say athletics produces lotsa dough. Amy is right to point out that that assertion not backed up by much evidence. So the argument, per andrewdb, morphs to the more diffuse one about brand loyalty. Well and good, but how about some evidence there, too? andrewdb’s assertions seem to me to be as light as air, as are Mead’s assertions in the original post.

  • Clark Coleman

    Commenters on this subject often confuse two questions: (1) Does the football program make money? (2) Does the athletic department make money? Question #2 is equivalent to: Does the football team make enough profit to cover all the other sports, perhaps with a little help from basketball? The profit-making athletic departments are in the minority, but the profit-making football teams are a much greater number. The column is about football, not the entire athletic department.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Clark Coleman: the column also looks beyond any direct financial impact of the sports programs and suggests that alumni giving and state appropriations (for public universities) are significantly higher than they would otherwise have been because of the emotional bond active sports programs, especially in the high profile programs, create between students and their schools.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service