Education College Athletics in the United States
John R. Thelin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0006


The topic of “college athletics” refers specifically to the intercollegiate varsity sports competitions among and between undergraduate student teams in the United States. Indeed, American higher education is unique worldwide in its investment in, and commitment to, providing high levels of competition for students as athletes against their counterparts at other colleges and universities. At the highest level of intercollegiate competition, these teams and their student-athletes serve as a major source of future professional athletes for the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball. In other sports, these college teams provide advanced training and competition for future members of Olympic squads in numerous sports—both for the United States Olympic teams and for the Olympic squads of numerous other nations. This especially includes the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s sponsorship and oversight of Division I programs that are “big time” and that attract large spectator crowds and television viewing audiences nationwide for football and men’s basketball games. College sports as a topic of scholarly analysis has acquired intensity and momentum since the 1980s, and it is now characterized by first-rate scholarship from such disciplinary perspectives as history, economics, sociology, philosophy, and law. Despite the limited, even parochial, scope of this article, with its focus on higher education in the United States, it does have interest and implications for international scholarship. First, the combination of uniqueness combined with the disproportionate resources given to college sports in the United States, at the very least, make the topic an object of curiosity at universities worldwide. Second, the customs, models, and codes that have come to characterize college sports and the ideal of the amateur athlete-scholar in the United States owe a substantial debt to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England, to which they owe their initial legacy and where college teams in crew and athletics (track and field) provided both influence and cooperation over several decades of inter-university competition between the two nations. Third, as characteristic of the globalization of higher education, colleges and universities in the United States devote increasing attention and resources to recruiting outstanding student-athletes from nations worldwide. This growing practice has resulted both in increased talent and in diversity within the ranks of intercollegiate athletics in the United States.

General Overviews

The development and complex heritage of college sports has been the subject of books and monographs by scholars, who tend to adopt an approach characterized by establishing an informed disciplinary base that is then supplemented by critical analyses that reflect the specialties of their respective academic perspectives. In Michener 1976 this includes a fusion of detailed historical research that served as a prelude to sorting through essential questions of values regarding commercialism and sports, segregation and exclusion by criteria of gender and race, and the residual problems posed for American democratic culture. Oriard 2009, whose author has brought experience both as a college and as a professional football player to his scholarship in English literature and American studies, provides a comprehensive and detailed dissection of the trends and contradictions in big-time sports within the American university. Rudolph 1962—the author’s definitive history of the American college and university—presents the original, bold thesis that it was in extracurricular activities, including college sports, that undergraduates displayed the energy and asserted the values of numerous activities and programs that ultimately were accepted and embraced, albeit often reluctantly, by college presidents, boards, and faculty. Smith 1988 relies on archival research to dispel the misnomer that college students ever eschewed high-stakes recruitment and payment for first-rate college football players. The later legacy of Smith’s work is found in Sperber 1998, in which the institutionalization of deliberate spending and promotion of varsity sports is perceptively analyzed. Indeed, as Thelin 1994 affirms, the most salient feature of big-time college sports in the 20th century was not the episodic abuses but, rather, the repeated practice of college leaders and athletics directors approving and legitimizing the practices that earlier had been regarded as illegal or inappropriate. The result was that, as Thelin 2008 documents, college sports were simultaneously a part of—and apart from—the norms governing other dimensions of educational activities on the American campus. By 2018, the escalation of overall spending on college sports, especially within the relatively small number of US universities committed to “big-time” commercialized programs, had increased. This accentuated development has led to such policy measures as federal taxes on college coaches who earn more than $1 million per year in salary and also has revived court cases and institutional discussions as to whether high-profile student-athletes should be paid salaries. These issues associated with massive revenues and spending will gain increasing presence in the serious study of intercollegiate athletics in the United States.

  • Clotfelter, Charles T. 2011. Big-time sports in American universities. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511976902

    The economics and policies of major intercollegiate athletics programs are introduced and analyzed by an author who has been a Vice President for Academic Affairs as well as long-time distinguished professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. The distinctive feature of this work is that Clotfelter’s prior scholarship that dealt with the macro-issues of the economics of higher education is here concentrated on the subset of intercollegiate athletics. This signals that college sports have become sufficiently large and problematic to warrant attention in an attempt to bring stakeholders together to reconcile athletics and academics.

  • Michener, James. 1976. Sports in America. New York: Random House.

    One of the best-selling historical novelists in the world turned his attention to nonfiction analysis of sports, including intercollegiate athletics, as a significant topic for understanding American culture. Michener’s analysis was prescient in anticipating issues of race, gender, and commercialism in amateur athletics in the US educational system.

  • Oriard, Michael. 2009. Bowled over: Big-time college football from the sixties to the BCS era. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

    Oriard’s scholarship provides state-of-the art scholarly analysis of the historical and contemporary condition of student-athletes and of the finances and policies of powerful and financially lucrative big-time college sports programs in the United States since 1960.

  • Rudolph, Frederick. 1962. The rise of football. In The American college and university: A history. By Frederick Rudolph, 373–393. New York: Knopf.

    This monumental history of higher education in the United States marks the first time a major American historian gave primary attention to college sports as a distinctive phenomenon that was both significant and unusual in its progression into the mainstream of the American campus and American popular culture from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

  • Smith, Ronald A. 1988. Sports and freedom: The rise of big-time college athletics. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A critical analysis of the ideal of amateurism within university athletics in the United States, Smith’s historical account from about 1850 to 1920 documents and complicates nostalgia for a real or imagined era when college sports in the United States were allegedly at odds with commercialism. Smith shows that American college sports enjoyed subsidies and commercialization from the start—and henceforth.

  • Sperber, Murray. 1998. Onward to victory: The crises that shaped college sports. New York: Holt.

    This is the definitive reconstruction of how advertising agencies, along with radio and television corporations, invested in and influenced big-time college sports in the 20th century. Analysis of imagery and symbolism combined with financial ledger sheets and minutes from national higher education associations provide enduring groundwork for subsequent research.

  • Thelin, John R. 1994. Games colleges play: Scandal and reform in intercollegiate athletics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A work that provides a fusion of American social history with developments in colleges and universities and that uses the prevalence of scandals as a unifying theme. Overarching conclusion is that the most perplexing feature of big-time college sports is not what is illegal but rather what academic officials declare to be legal and legitimate.

  • Thelin, John R. 2008. Academics and athletics: A part and apart in the American campus. Journal of Intercollegiate Sports 1.1: 72–81.

    DOI: 10.1123/jis.1.1.72

    This scholarly article served as the basis for the keynote address at the inaugural NCAA scholarly colloquium on college sports held in 2008. Its dominant theme is that college sports constitutes a peculiar institution within American colleges and universities by dint of the special treatment and exemptions it has been afforded.

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