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The Athletic Trap

How College Sports Corrupted the Academy

Howard L. Nixon II

Publication Year: 2014

The unrivaled amount of cash poured into the college athletic system has made sports programs breeding grounds for corruption while diverting crucial resources from the academic mission of universities. Like money in Washington politics, the influence bought by a complex set of self-interested actors seriously undermines movement toward reform while trapping universities in a cycle of escalating competition. Longtime sport sociologist Howard L. Nixon II approaches the issue from the perspective of college presidents—how they are seduced by prestige or pressured by economics into building programs that move schools toward a commercial model of athletics. Nixon situates his analysis in the context of what he calls “the intercollegiate golden triangle,” a powerful social network of athletic, media, and private corporate commercial interests. This network lures presidents and other university leaders into an athletic arms race with promises of institutional enhancements, increased enrollments, better student morale, improved alumni loyalty, more financial contributions, and higher prestige. These promises can cloud the judgment of college presidents and governing boards, entangling them in an athletic trap that restricts their influence. Unable to control spending, inequalities, and deviance within commercialized athletic programs, universities are ensnared in financial, political, and social obligations that are difficult to sustain—or escape. Nixon clarifies the structure of this trap, describes how higher education institutions fall into it, and explores what it means for institutions and presidents caught in it. This timely analysis also has relevance to the debates about the role of the NCAA and ongoing reform efforts in college sports. The Athletic Trap will be of interest to university presidents, board members, and administrators, sport sociologists concerned with the balance of power between academics and athletics, and anyone else with a serious interest in college sports and its future.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I would like to thank my editor, Greg Britton, for his excellent insights and suggestions and for his encouragement and support. His suggestion of the subtitle was especially helpful in sharpening my focus in preparing the manuscript. I would also like to thank Greg Nicholl for his assistance during the production process. I have...


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pp. xi-xiv

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1. Commercialization, College Sports, and the Athletic Trap

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pp. 1-22

Under the headline “Division I Schools Spend More on Athletes than Education,” a USA Today story that would probably mystify many people outside the United States began: “Public universities competing in NCAA Division I sports spend as much as six times more per athlete than they spend to educate students.”1 Why...

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2. The Intercollegiate Golden Triangle

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pp. 23-47

The idea of the intercollegiate golden triangle (IGT) that I introduced in chapter 1 is an essential conceptual tool throughout this book. It is a way of seeing and referring to the dominant structure of money, power, and prestige in commercialized college sports.1 The IGT is a social network of relationships linking universities, their...

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3. The Business of College Sports

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pp. 48-69

The existence of the intercollegiate golden triangle (IGT) implies that there is much more to big-time college sports than what spectators or viewers see when they watch a football or men’s basketball game. These games are embedded in a network of relationships involving college presidents, athletic directors, coaches, marketing...

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4. The Arms Race, Inequalities, and the Pressures of the College Sports Business

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pp. 70-94

The lack of public interest in the problems facing big-time college sports may explain continued popular support for these sports, but it does not make these problems go away. They include real and serious financial, ethical, and legal problems. Unlike the public, the people who run or are responsible for college sports cannot...

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5. Deviance, Corruption, and Scandals in College Sports

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pp. 95-119

Revelations about illegal payments, cheating, exploitation of student-athletes, fixing, the crimes of athletes and coaches, and other transgressions in college sports have damaged the reputations of the deviant individuals and universities. Damaged reputations and NCAA penalties may have hurt these people and institutions for a...

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6. Control and Reform in Big-Time College Sports

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pp. 120-141

The way governance is supposed to work in traditional universities is that the governing board is the final authority and is accountable in all matters relating to the general interest, well-being, and reputation of the institution it serves.1 Boards delegate responsibility for the daily operation of the university to presidents and...

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7. Reforming College Sports

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pp. 142-165

Significant change in big-time college sports is difficult because its organizational structures, the athletic trap, and the culture of reverence that spawn and sustain them are deeply entrenched. We know, for example, how intractable the financial arms race has become, despite the fact that NCAA leaders and college presidents...

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pp. 166-170

The athletic trap is part reality and part illusion. Being involved in big-time college sports and having to pay its rising costs may seem very real to college presidents. After all, there are annual budgets to balance, star coaches, administrators, and other staff members in the athletic department to pay, facilities to pay for and maintain...


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pp. 171-194


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pp. 195-210


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pp. 211-217

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9781421411965
E-ISBN-10: 1421411962
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421411958
Print-ISBN-10: 1421411954

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2014