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."

Football brought something new to the campus. "The excitement, danger and masculine character of the game were key to its influence," the researchers said. It brought together universities that had been somewhat isolated from each other. As time passed their football teams were organized into conferences, and today, according to the research, conferences have grown into major givers – and deniers – of status.

Universities are found in conferences that reflect not only their football skills, but their academic achievements as well. Only schools that are deemed worthy both in scholarship and football are allowed to move up to the more prestigious conferences.

Boise State University has a highly rated football team, for example, but it was passed over when the Pac-10 recently expanded. Bob Kustra, president of the university, told a press conference that Boise State was "building our research programs and our graduate programs" to better its chances of eventually joining the celebrated conference, which has some of the highest rated schools – academically -- and most successful football programs in the country.

High profile football conferences, Kustra said, "look at schools that look the most like them." A winning team isn't enough. Football, in this case, is driving academics.

There are, of course, exceptions. Nearly any list of best universities in the country will include MIT and CalTech, for instance, neither of which is taken seriously as a football threat. Harvard tops many lists, and it can field a fair team, especially when playing arch-rival Yale.

So football isn't the only game in town.

"There are multiple status systems in higher education, and they are related to each other, but they are also independent of each other," Stevens said in the interview. "Very few schools can claim to be excellent in all things."

By the way, the researchers debunk the popular assumption that universities build football teams because they bring money to the campus.

"For the vast majority of colleges and universities, football costs much more money than it brings in," the study says, citing other research. Only the most successful programs are likely to reap significant television revenues and build high-capacity stadiums. However, a good program is a "sacred cow for trustees and alumni," which can add a few bucks to the coffers.

But even a struggling team brings one reward, the researchers found. It brings men back to the campus at a time when women are surpassing men in both numbers and academic performance.

And despite that old song, you don't have to be a football hero to get the prettiest girls. But it couldn't hurt.