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school athletics and grades

Fabio

In the study of education, the link between athletics and academic performance is a topic of some debate. On the one hand, many researchers think that athletics decreases grades because athletes don’t focus on schoolwork. Other researchers see athletics as increasing academic performance because you need to meet academic standards and you are forced to show up to school.

Here’s one analysis of the athletics-grades link, a theory based on years teaching at a variety of institutions and being the son of two high school teachers. If a sport receives many external rewards (e.g., money or prestige), then that sport will attract people who are motivated by external validation. These people will simply ignore any activity that takes away from time spent on the field or time spent enjoying the money and glamour associated with the sport. There is also an institutional process at work – the rewards associated with sports encourages school administrators to lower standards so they can admit or retain athletes.

If the sport does not attract such rewards, then athletes are more likely to be interested in the intrinsic joy of the sport or in the camaraderie associated with team work. Thus, you either have people who derive satisfaction from excellence and mastery of skill, or people who like team work. These people, not surprisingly, are more likely to show up to class and try hard.

This theory explains the patterns found on many college and high school campuses: The football and basketball players are routinely on academic probation, while the lacrosse girls are often the most enjoyable and dependable students in class. This also explains why male athletes are often academically weak, while female athletes seem to be more academically competent: the girls are in it for the love of the sport, while men are rewarded with non-academic benefits; these attitudes are reflected in academic behavior.

I am arguing that the confusing opinions on school athletics boils down to a misunderstanding of a selection effect. I seriously doubt that making kids play sports will make them better students. But the choice of sport is often a signal of a student’s attitudes towards work and achievement.

Written by fabiorojas

September 17, 2006 at 11:18 pm

21 Responses

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  1. Fabio-

    So, here’s my question: there are lots of pursuits that hold out the possibility of high rewards, rocket scientists, super model, sociology professor…. But, the extrinisicly motivated don’t choose these, they choose athletics, namely, big-time athletics, football and basketball (especially given the age restictions in these two sports).

    So, is it the extrinisic motivation, or EXTREME extrinsic motivation, the prospect of making a gazillion dollars over the more modest salaries of a good network engineer and the EXTREME prestige, everyone knows Terrell Owens, no one knows the folks who build rocket ships.

    Having taught a number of football players (never had the luxury of the basketball team), these kids ain’t dumb… they know that most of them aren’t going pro and if they do, won’t be superstars. Many of them are well aware that a crappy college team is as good as it gets. Some of these kids do buckle down. But, most of them don’t. While personality traits and preferences might explain some of the behavior we oberve in the classroom, I would suggest looking at other places as well. I bet if you went down to the athletic department, you would see a whole infrastructure dedicated to motivating the big time athletes to underperform and underwhelm.

    Like

    Lars

    September 18, 2006 at 1:08 pm

  2. Super models and sociologists aren’t extrinsically motivated? C’mon… Anorexia and weird, obsessive behavior just doesn’t arise from intrinsic motivations. ;)

    Lars – I do agree with you on your latter point, however. The behavior of many athletes can be at least partially explained by the incentive system. Football and basketball (especially men’s b-ball) players tend to get many more benefits and perks thrown their way.

    Like

    brayden

    September 18, 2006 at 1:38 pm

  3. I think Sociology Departments need to give out “free” tracksuits. Oh, and cheerleaders might be nice, but this might belong on Prof. Uggen’s blog entry for today. And a lewd marching band. Really, Prof. Fabio, the problem isn’t with athletics, its with academics.

    Like

    Lars

    September 18, 2006 at 1:47 pm

  4. Lars asked: “So, is it the extrinisic motivation, or EXTREME extrinsic motivation, the prospect of making a gazillion dollars over the more modest salaries of a good network engineer and the EXTREME prestige, everyone knows Terrell Owens, no one knows the folks who build rocket ships.”

    Well, here’s the rational choice answer: the value placed on the small probability of a glamorous career probably outweights the value of a more dependable but less sexy career in a non-athletic field. This is probably quite true for people with low academic skill who probably won’t have the chance at a more lucrative career.

    Also, one could rephrase and say it’s about time horizons: myopic young people are eager to consumer the short term benefits associated with collegiate sports (prestige, women, a little money) and not care about how time spent school can lead to a better life down the line.

    In the end, this logic probably only applies to football/basketball atheltes (or soccer in other nations) and not to many other athletes. Even the best athletes in many fields work hard at school because they know that even a gold medal is fleeting glory, the money isn’t that great even at the top of the heap, and they are washed up by age 30.

    Like

    Fabio Rojas

    September 18, 2006 at 4:27 pm

  5. Lars: We need shoes. It’s gotta be the shoes.

    Fabio: There’s a degrees of freedom problem in your example: the female lacrosse vs. male basketball player comparison confounds differences in reward structures (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) with differences in gender (obviously) and class-of-origin. A better “test” might be whether male water polo players are better students than, say, male golfers.

    Like

    Kim

    September 18, 2006 at 4:37 pm

  6. Good point, Kim. But here are some simple, falsifiable hypotheses:

    Controlling for aptitude, Male athletes are worse academic performers than female athletes (because so few female sports are rewarded).

    Controlling for aptitude, the ranking of academic performance among men should be something like:

    football/basketball

    Like

    Fabio Rojas

    September 18, 2006 at 4:45 pm

  7. The behavioral rational choice answer is that the probability is success in sports is hugely over-estimated and the probability of success in a traditional occupation is under-estimated by most student athletes. So it is not just a question of different valuation of material goods. Student-athletes can have the same regard for fame and money as the rest of us but their investements could be “rational” given their distorted estimates of future success along different pathways (i.e. the academic versus the athletic).

    Like

    Omar

    September 18, 2006 at 4:59 pm

  8. Omar – you have out rational choiced me!

    But on a serious note, I do suspect that preferences might actually be different among different kinds of athletes.

    Like

    Fabio Rojas

    September 18, 2006 at 5:39 pm

  9. I am really enjoying the discussion. Having played sports all my life and now in the extrinsically motivated or non-extrinsically motivated world of a sociology doctoral program, there is a difference between playing sports and playing “big time” sports. When you think about the raw numbers, we are really discussing an extremely small number of individuals and a small proportion of the overall athlete population in collegiate sports. Moreover, there are not only differences regarding athletes from different sports on the same campus but there are also differences regarding athletes in the same sport across different campuses. Accordingly, there is huge difference between sports at places like Florida States, Ohio States, and USCs of the world and a place like Rhodes college in Memphis, TN.

    Like

    Rashawn Ray

    October 2, 2006 at 2:51 pm

  10. The assumption that football and basketball teams have the lowest grades. Granted, they often have the lowest grade over all at the awards ceremony, but the average GPA on our team is 3.57. If you call that a lack of academic success, then I don’t know what is. The assumption that girls have higher grades than the guys is also pretty weak. The girls teams may have the highest overall GPA, but their averages are generally lower because only a few of them study in between getting laid and practice. The reality is that there cannot be a meaningful comparison between male and female athletes as groups because each athlete is different.

    Like

    Jake

    May 8, 2007 at 3:43 pm

  11. That is crazy, I play basketball and football and i have a 5.0 GPA

    Like

    MIike

    November 19, 2007 at 7:27 pm

  12. Then you are what we call “error” around these parts Mike.

    Like

    Omar

    November 20, 2007 at 1:38 am

  13. i did not give a crap untill foot ball season my gpa was a 3.5 then it was a 3.0 or 2.9 during off season

    Like

    jordan maxie

    April 28, 2008 at 3:49 pm

  14. I would like to know how Mike the basketball and football player got his 5.0 GPA? Is that the same as “Spinal Tap” having special amps where the volume knob goes all the way up to 11?

    Like

    JimE

    November 17, 2008 at 10:43 pm

  15. Here is an easy way to put it.

    If the kids don’t have sports. They’ll Find something else to do.

    and trust me. that “something else” is not going to be reading a book and studying all night and day.

    Like

    vonbes

    July 20, 2009 at 8:40 pm

  16. orgtheory.netschool athletics and grades
    with 15 comments

    Fabio

    In the study of education, the link between athletics and academic performance is a topic of some debate. On the one hand, many researchers think that athletics decreases grades because athletes don’t focus on schoolwork. Other researchers see athletics as increasing academic performance because you need to meet academic standards and you are forced to show up to school.

    Here’s one analysis of the athletics-grades link, a theory based on years teaching at a variety of institutions and being the son of two high school teachers. If a sport receives many external rewards (e.g., money or prestige), then that sport will attract people who are motivated by external validation. These people will simply ignore any activity that takes away from time spent on the field or time spent enjoying the money and glamour associated with the sport. There is also an institutional process at work – the rewards associated with sports encourages school administrators to lower standards so they can admit or retain athletes.

    If the sport does not attract such rewards, then athletes are more likely to be interested in the intrinsic joy of the sport or in the camaraderie associated with team work. Thus, you either have people who derive satisfaction from excellence and mastery of skill, or people who like team work. These people, not surprisingly, are more likely to show up to class and try hard.

    This theory explains the patterns found on many college and high school campuses: The football and basketball players are routinely on academic probation, while the lacrosse girls are often the most enjoyable and dependable students in class. This also explains why male athletes are often academically weak, while female athletes seem to be more academically competent: the girls are in it for the love of the sport, while men are rewarded with non-academic benefits; these attitudes are reflected in academic behavior.

    I am arguing that the confusing opinions on school athletics boils down to a misunderstanding of a selection effect. I seriously doubt that making kids play sports will make them better students. But the choice of sport is often a signal of a student’s attitudes towards work and achievement.

    ——————————————————————————–

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    Written by fabiorojas

    September 17, 2006 at 11:18 pm
    Posted in education, fabio, uncategorized
    « ph.d.?parfit »
    15 Responses
    Subscribe to comments with RSS.

    Fabio-

    So, here’s my question: there are lots of pursuits that hold out the possibility of high rewards, rocket scientists, super model, sociology professor…. But, the extrinisicly motivated don’t choose these, they choose athletics, namely, big-time athletics, football and basketball (especially given the age restictions in these two sports).

    So, is it the extrinisic motivation, or EXTREME extrinsic motivation, the prospect of making a gazillion dollars over the more modest salaries of a good network engineer and the EXTREME prestige, everyone knows Terrell Owens, no one knows the folks who build rocket ships.

    Having taught a number of football players (never had the luxury of the basketball team), these kids ain’t dumb… they know that most of them aren’t going pro and if they do, won’t be superstars. Many of them are well aware that a crappy college team is as good as it gets. Some of these kids do buckle down. But, most of them don’t. While personality traits and preferences might explain some of the behavior we oberve in the classroom, I would suggest looking at other places as well. I bet if you went down to the athletic department, you would see a whole infrastructure dedicated to motivating the big time athletes to underperform and underwhelm.
    Lars

    September 18, 2006 at 1:08 pm
    Super models and sociologists aren’t extrinsically motivated? C’mon… Anorexia and weird, obsessive behavior just doesn’t arise from intrinsic motivations. ;)

    Lars – I do agree with you on your latter point, however. The behavior of many athletes can be at least partially explained by the incentive system. Football and basketball (especially men’s b-ball) players tend to get many more benefits and perks thrown their way.
    brayden

    September 18, 2006 at 1:38 pm
    I think Sociology Departments need to give out “free” tracksuits. Oh, and cheerleaders might be nice, but this might belong on Prof. Uggen’s blog entry for today. And a lewd marching band. Really, Prof. Fabio, the problem isn’t with athletics, its with academics.
    Lars

    September 18, 2006 at 1:47 pm
    Lars asked: “So, is it the extrinisic motivation, or EXTREME extrinsic motivation, the prospect of making a gazillion dollars over the more modest salaries of a good network engineer and the EXTREME prestige, everyone knows Terrell Owens, no one knows the folks who build rocket ships.”

    Well, here’s the rational choice answer: the value placed on the small probability of a glamorous career probably outweights the value of a more dependable but less sexy career in a non-athletic field. This is probably quite true for people with low academic skill who probably won’t have the chance at a more lucrative career.

    Also, one could rephrase and say it’s about time horizons: myopic young people are eager to consumer the short term benefits associated with collegiate sports (prestige, women, a little money) and not care about how time spent school can lead to a better life down the line.

    In the end, this logic probably only applies to football/basketball atheltes (or soccer in other nations) and not to many other athletes. Even the best athletes in many fields work hard at school because they know that even a gold medal is fleeting glory, the money isn’t that great even at the top of the heap, and they are washed up by age 30.
    Fabio Rojas

    September 18, 2006 at 4:27 pm
    Lars: We need shoes. It’s gotta be the shoes.

    Fabio: There’s a degrees of freedom problem in your example: the female lacrosse vs. male basketball player comparison confounds differences in reward structures (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) with differences in gender (obviously) and class-of-origin. A better “test” might be whether male water polo players are better students than, say, male golfers.
    Kim

    September 18, 2006 at 4:37 pm
    Good point, Kim. But here are some simple, falsifiable hypotheses:

    Controlling for aptitude, Male athletes are worse academic performers than female athletes (because so few female sports are rewarded).

    Controlling for aptitude, the ranking of academic performance among men should be something like:

    football/basketball
    Fabio Rojas

    September 18, 2006 at 4:45 pm
    The behavioral rational choice answer is that the probability is success in sports is hugely over-estimated and the probability of success in a traditional occupation is under-estimated by most student athletes. So it is not just a question of different valuation of material goods. Student-athletes can have the same regard for fame and money as the rest of us but their investements could be “rational” given their distorted estimates of future success along different pathways (i.e. the academic versus the athletic).
    Omar

    September 18, 2006 at 4:59 pm
    Omar – you have out rational choiced me!

    But on a serious note, I do suspect that preferences might actually be different among different kinds of athletes.
    Fabio Rojas

    September 18, 2006 at 5:39 pm
    I am really enjoying the discussion. Having played sports all my life and now in the extrinsically motivated or non-extrinsically motivated world of a sociology doctoral program, there is a difference between playing sports and playing “big time” sports. When you think about the raw numbers, we are really discussing an extremely small number of individuals and a small proportion of the overall athlete population in collegiate sports. Moreover, there are not only differences regarding athletes from different sports on the same campus but there are also differences regarding athletes in the same sport across different campuses. Accordingly, there is huge difference between sports at places like Florida States, Ohio States, and USCs of the world and a place like Rhodes college in Memphis, TN.
    Rashawn Ray

    October 2, 2006 at 2:51 pm
    The assumption that football and basketball teams have the lowest grades. Granted, they often have the lowest grade over all at the awards ceremony, but the average GPA on our team is 3.57. If you call that a lack of academic success, then I don’t know what is. The assumption that girls have higher grades than the guys is also pretty weak. The girls teams may have the highest overall GPA, but their averages are generally lower because only a few of them study in between getting laid and practice. The reality is that there cannot be a meaningful comparison between male and female athletes as groups because each athlete is different.
    Jake

    May 8, 2007 at 3:43 pm
    That is crazy, I play basketball and football and i have a 5.0 GPA
    MIike

    November 19, 2007 at 7:27 pm
    Then you are what we call “error” around these parts Mike.
    Omar

    November 20, 2007 at 1:38 am
    i did not give a crap untill foot ball season my gpa was a 3.5 then it was a 3.0 or 2.9 during off season
    jordan maxie

    April 28, 2008 at 3:49 pm
    I would like to know how Mike the basketball and football player got his 5.0 GPA? Is that the same as “Spinal Tap” having special amps where the volume knob goes all the way up to 11?
    JimE

    November 17, 2008 at 10:43 pm
    Here is an easy way to put it.

    If the kids don’t have sports. They’ll Find something else to do.

    and trust me. that “something else” is not going to be reading a book and studying all night and day.
    vonbes

    July 20, 2009 at 8:40 pm

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    Like

    Dylan

    March 15, 2010 at 2:31 pm

  17. Just for the idiot that wants to rip on the kid for saying he has a 5.0 GPA i would like to say that yes there is a such thing and it is possible it is called being in Advanced Placement classes which give you a weighted GPA i had a 4.3 GPA at graduation and I was a varsity and competitive cheerleader and number 3 in my class. it is possible to have a 5.0 just extremely hard.

    Like

    Jay

    April 22, 2010 at 12:41 am

  18. good article !

    Like

    touriste

    January 20, 2011 at 9:03 pm

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  21. I disagree with this blog as I have found from research, polling students, and personal experience that sports can truly help a student’s overall grade. Check out my blog if you don’t believe me, all my information is up there and I am continuously adding new findings.

    Like

    sportsandgrades

    May 31, 2012 at 11:26 pm


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