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The high-school graduation ceremony is a peculiarly American tradition. Another American tradition is that at ceremonies across the US today, the kid going to Harvard will generally receive fewer backslaps than the kid who has won a football scholarship to be a second-string lineman somewhere.

Griping that college sports are out of control is yet another American tradition, dating back to the late 19th century. It’s a cliché that the best college athletes rarely graduate, rarely talk to regular students, often get drunk, and occasionally rape or shoot people. At the best sports universities, such as Florida or Michigan State, they are athletes more than students.

But less well understood is that the recent growth in college sports has infected hundreds of other American universities – and high schools – whose athletes are not particularly good. Even the kid arriving at Harvard this September will find lots of recruited athletes eating up his tuition fees and reducing standards in his classes. This is not a story of America’s top sporting schools – whose players are at least outstanding athletes and potential pros – but of all the others.

The last 25 years or so have seen various regrettable revolutions in college sport, documented by William C. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin in their wonderful book Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values. First, college sport began getting more television coverage. The National Collegiate Athletic Association started organising more national championships. A handful of colleges made profits from appearing on TV in big games. Hundreds of other colleges then decided they could do likewise, and began hiring more assistant coaches, sports psychologists, football public relations officers and so on, and building new stadiums.

Meanwhile, a professionalisation of both American child-rearing and American recreational sport occurred. Kids increasingly play a single sport all year round, with Dad as personal coach, and consultants to improve their serving or tackling. The kids fly to other states to defeat other kids, sometimes take steroids, and generally behave as if they are professional athletes rather than 14-year-olds. H.G. Bissinger, in his 1990 book Friday Night Lights, described a Texan high school that spent more on getting rushed film prints of its football games to its coaches than on teaching materials for the English department. Things have mostly deteriorated since (for one, albeit fictional, reductio, see Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons).

Colleges increasingly compete to recruit kids on athletics scholarships in sports ranging from women’s soccer to men’s lacrosse. Nowadays a fifth-grader can hardly throw a basket in his driveway without being illegally videoed by rival college assistant coaches.

The whole edifice of college sport is built on a series of demonstrable fantasies. For instance: “My kid will win an athletics scholarship.” In fact, perhaps one in 200 high-school varsity athletes does. “Athletics is my kid’s best chance of a free college education.” In fact, there is about $22bn annually on offer in academic scholarships, or 22 times as much as in athletics scholarships. “Later my kid will turn pro.” The chance decreases to one in several thousand.

Colleges suffer from their own delusions. For instance: “By recruiting this kid, we will win more games, get lucrative television deals, and persuade alumni to give our college more money.” In fact, by the recent admission of Myles Brand, the NCAA’s president, only about a dozen schools break even in athletics, though many pretend to make profits by hiding capital spending. Nor does it seem that a winning football team prompts alumni to donate to the academic side of a college. If they give more, it’s to football. Another delusion: “Campus will unite around our sports teams.” In fact, athletics often divides campus, because of the growing social gulf between athletes and other students. Final myth: “Sports build character.” It didn’t work for Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, and all the other badly behaved superstars.

Yet even the Ivy League universities have succumbed to these fantasies, as Bowen and Levin demonstrate. Fourteen per cent of Ivy students are now recruited athletes. Most of them enter college with worse academic qualifications than other students, underperform academically at college even relative to this bad start, and often sit in clumps in the back rows of the easiest courses, spreading anti-intellectual vibes.

This is new: 50 years ago, Ivy athletes were about as academic as other students. The Ivy Leagues seem to have evolved from being babysitting services for the rich, through a brief phase of academic focus, to becoming, in part, sports camps.

It’s bizarre that other Americans put up with this. When “Deep Throat”, source of the Watergate story, last week outed himself to help fund his grandchildren’s college education, he was acting on a great American anxiety. The cost of tuition keeps rising, an ever- larger share of it pays for athletics, and athletes take places at elite universities from more academic kids.

To a foreigner, the weirdest aspect of this is that most student “athletes” are not particularly athletic. This first struck me when a Dutch friend, an average soccer player, moved to a high school in Ohio where he became a hero to thousands as the kicker of the school’s football team. Hysteria surrounds big-time sport all over the world, but only in the US does it also surround small-time sport.

It’s true that American kids improve at sport by playing it non-stop – until they get injured or burn out – but there will always be only a few great natural athletes. A college coach told me that perhaps one per cent of student athletes in the NCAA’s lower divisions will eventually play sport professionally. Yet these kids live like pros. The fantasy ends the day they graduate.

 Last month, the independent Knight Commission on intercollegiate athletics reported that college spending on sports “grew at a rate four times faster than overall institutional spending” from 2001 to 2003, even excluding capital spending and staff pay. The commission hopes to change matters. However, similar commissions have hoped to do so for a century, and look where we are now.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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