College Football: Why Quiet Schools Want Violent Sports

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It's that time of the year again. Love blossoms on college campuses across the land, and violence rips across the football field as student athletes try to bludgeon the opposition.

For more than a century football has ranked supreme among college sports in what would seem to be an uncomfortable marriage between a violent game and high academic goals. Turn on your television set any Saturday and witness the feverish clashes on the field and hysteria in the stands.

The peculiar relationship between football and many of the most tranquil campuses in the country led three researchers to ask a basic question: Why football?

They found the answer in their history books, and on their own campuses.

Football is a man's game. Macho man. It continues today because football prowess can elevate the status of a winning university, and not coincidentally, fill its halls with men.

"Academics like to pretend that football is ancillary to the main business of higher education, but if you look at admissions or donations, you see it's central," said Mitchell Stevens, associate professor of education at Stanford University and one of three authors of a new study that focuses on the dominant role football plays in modern higher education.

Stanford is a powerhouse in football. It also makes nearly everyone's list of top universities. That's no coincidence, Stevens said in a telephone interview.

"There's no question that football retains its macho air, and the warlike violent aspects of the game are essential to its appeal," he said. "It's one way that colleges and universities continue to make themselves appealing to young men, especially during a period where, relative to women, men are scarce resources, especially at more academically selective schools.

Males, he said, "are relatively prized commodities."

But beyond the macho element, there's status, and maintaining a high status is essential when it comes to attracting students as well as professors, not to mention alumni donations. It's no accident that most high-profile colleges and universities also excel in football, at least among their peer institutions.

Stevens, along with organizational management specialist Arik Lifschitz, also of Stanford, and sociologist Michael Sauder of the University of Iowa, the only football fan among the three, analyzed data from 283 American universities from 1896 – 2010 to see how a successful football program affects status.

"Football drew avid fans from its beginning," the study says. "Within 25 years of the first Rutgers-Princeton game (in 1869) schools from every region of the country were fielding teams and sending them on competitive expeditions to other schools."

Then, as now, there was a macho element in the rapid spread of the game. The West still needed to be tamed, the country was expanding rapidly economically, and it wasn't altogether clear that a college education would be helpful to the young men in the family.

"The need to send an ambitious son to college for several years of book learning was not presumed when there was money to be made in a family business or on the Western frontier," the study says. Besides, "college life was popularly regarded as bookish and effete."

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