Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and
By William G. Bowen andSarah A. Levin
Princeton University, 490 pp.,illustrated, $27.95
A New Season: Using Title IX to ReformCollege Sports
By Brian L. Porto
Praeger, 245 pp., $39.95
Numerous instances of illiteracy among the scholars, not to mention academic fraud, felonious conduct, illegal receipt of funds from boosters, and various other shams, scams, high crimes and misdemeanors at the universities where football and basketball games are played most superbly, have demonstrated the hollowness of the designation ''student-athlete" at those athletic factories. The chilling achievement of ''Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values" is the revelation that schools that have enjoyed excellent academic reputations also overemphasize the importance of sports, and that they have been diminished -- and have diminished the prospects of their students -- by so doing.
At the Ivy League schools, for example, where technically there are no athletic scholarships and where even a spectacularly successful football team capable of competing with the titans would not be allowed to play in a postseason game, admissions departments invite coaches to submit lists of athletes they'd like admitted. According to the statistics in ''Reclaiming the Game," youngsters who appear on these lists ''are four times more likely to be admitted than similarly situated applicants who were not on a coach's list."
Students who have a parent or another relative who has attended a particular school often have an advantage over others applying for admission. A chess grandmaster or a brilliant French horn player who practices six hours a day might also enjoy an advantage, especially if the particular admissions department is trying to create a ''well-rounded" class by assembling a group of students who have already mastered something by the time they're 18. But the benefit that accrues to the linebacker who the coach thinks can turn last year's mediocre team into an Ivy League champion, or to the point guard who might help Williams beat Amherst, is far greater, and advocacy for those folks is built into the system.
As a result of this arrangement, applicants who aren't athletes lose, and, according to the authors of ''Reclaiming the Game," so do many of the students who do get into the country's most prestigious schools. James Shulman, one of the book's four collaborators, speaks of the ''dumbing down" of curriculum in majors where athletes are concentrated -- economics at Williams, for example. Studies included in the book indicate that growing numbers of recruited athletes not only perform less well academically than their classmates, but that they do not do as well in college as their high school grades and test scores predict they should do.
The abuses associated with the recruitment and the college experiences of athletes at the Ivy League schools and places like Williams, Amherst, or the other prestigious academic institutions studied for ''Reclaiming the Game" are dwarfed by the daily business of the big-time athletic departments operating at the schools famous for the athletic achievements of their teams. In ''A New Season," Brian L. Porto recapitulates some of the conditions of the recruited athlete at the Division I school. He (or she) is likely to be assigned by an assistant coach courses that will not threaten the athlete's eligibility. These courses will not necessarily lead to a coherent educational experience, let alone graduation; hence the phrase ''majoring in eligibility." Since, as Porto points out, ''the average member of a 'Top 25' college football or men's basketball team enters college after having graduated in the bottom quarter of his class," he is likely to be unprepared for genuine academic challenges, so the university obliges and presents none. The result, according to Porto, is that lots of ''football and basketball players regress" while they are enrolled in college; there is ''a decline in their cognitive skills." In other words, they get dumber than they would have gotten if they had taken jobs out of high school that didn't involve exclusive association with coaches, fellow players, and those who revere them. Thanks, alma mater.
''A New Season" includes anecdotal as well as statistical evidence for the decline and fall of the student athlete: a coach at an Atlantic Coast Conference school who tells a tired basketball player ''You spent too damn much time studying this week"; a sign in the basketball locker room at Duke that reads ''Practice times are as follows. . . . Please schedule class accordingly."
The defense of what some might call professional athletic teams in residence at various colleges and universities has generally been that the revenue sports -- football and men's basketball -- provide the institution with income that can be used to fund sports like wrestling and gymnastics, and perhaps even contribute to the institution's academic side. ''A New Season" demonstrates that this is a myth, albeit a stubborn one. The ''revenue sports" at most Division I schools lose money, a lot of them lose a lot of money, and the shortfall in the athletic department is generally made up by increasing student fees and asking state legislatures for help.
The most original notion in ''A New Season" concerns a method for reforming the abuses. Porto maintains that Title IX can help university faculties, administrators, presidents, and chancellors who would dismantle the monstrously expensive programs that have come to characterize college sports in this country and replace them with organized opportunities for genuine college students to participate in athletics. He sees the law as the tool for de-emphasizing the revenue sports, rather than leverage for providing female basketball players with the state-of-the-art weight rooms and private jet travel that males in the ''revenue sports" take for granted.
''Reclaiming the Game" and ''A New Season" describe a college and university culture in which sports have become extremely significant. That state of affairs won't surprise anybody who's watched a bowl game or enjoyed the annual scramble toward the Final Four, but taken together these books successfully question the extent to which athletic teams benefit a university, demonstrate various ways in which athletic programs subvert the integrity of the institutions they represent, and make imaginative suggestions toward reform.
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's ''Only a Game" each Saturday from WBUR in Boston.
Editor's Note: In assigning its book reviews, the Globe as a matter of course seeks to avoid any conflict of interest, or even the perception of such a conflict. A review of ''Secret Frequencies: A New York Education," by John Skoyles, in the June 6 Books section was written by an assistant professor in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department at Emerson College, where Skoyles is a professor. While we in no way mean to call into question the review's content or the reviewer's professionalism, we would have, as a matter of course, assigned the review elsewhere if we had known of the connection.