Status and College Football

August 21, 2012

By Scott Jaschik

When a Stanford University scholar displayed the first slide in his presentation on college football and university status systems, an audience member who was a loyal Cardinal fan challenged him. Why, she asked, would a Stanford professor lead off with a slide showing the football stadium of the University of California at Berkeley?

The comment was a joke. But it was a perfect illustration of one part of the paper presented here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association -- namely, that in the United States, a major part of the identity of American colleges and universities is linked to athletics and, specifically, to football. But the paper argues that traditional explanations for why American universities are so football-obsessed are wrong. Further, the paper offers evidence that universities that join top athletic conferences not only improve their sports programs, but may see academic improvements as a result.

Mitchell Stevens, an associate professor of education at Stanford University, argued in presenting the paper that only a better understanding of football's role in American higher education -- and its role in signifying status -- will allow for an understanding of the sport's role. (His co-authors are Arik Lifschitz, associate provost of the University of the People, and Michael Sauder, associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa.)

The traditional explanations for why American higher education values football are flawed, Stevens said. Many say, for example, that football is the path to school spirit and good feeling -- a theory he said was debunked by recent scandals. Others have assumed football makes money, which isn't necessarily true, he noted. Still others have argued that football attracts general support for universities from a public that may not like certain aspects of higher education, Stevens said. “It enables people who don’t support, say, gender and sexuality studies at a university to still support the university,” is the way the argument goes, he said. Of course many universities with die-hard football fans have been unable to use that support to prevent major budget cuts (especially from states) in recent years.

So why did American universities – unlike their European counterparts – make football so central to their identities?

The paper argues that there are three reasons:

  • Intercollegiate football (which took off in the late 19th century) is “a system for marking and distributing status” among universities in the United States. Stevens compared athletic conferences, from their start, to junior high school cafeterias. “You are as cool as the people you have lunch with.”
  • Status derived from football and conferences “is consequential beyond the athletic domain.”
  • Status “is multiple,” and not a singular ranking. So interplay between athletics and academic prestige, while related, may not be identical.