Does Athletic Success Lead to Academic Failure?

Last Updated on October 11, 2012


It is no secret that on-field success leads to an increase in national awareness and student applications. Whether it’s a winning season or an upset, America’s obsession with football runs deep.

Blame it on the 24/7 media bombardment or the laziness of today’s college students, but one thing is certain: football glory leads to academic short-comings.

A recent study published in the October issue of American Economic Journal: Applied Economics found a direct correlation between male non-athletes increased partying and decreased studying in the fall semester and the success of their football program.

The study, conducted by University of Oregon researchers Jason M. Lindo, Isaac D. Swensen and Glen R. Waddell, revealed male students dedicate less time to studying and more time to drinking and “risky behaviors” when their collegiate team plays well.

Although the study was conducted at the University of Oregon, the results reflect the attitude of students nationwide. No longer are academics at the forefront of the mind. Now, more and more undecided high school seniors are swayed from one institution to another based on athletic superiority.

A national championship season or a Rose Bowl victory can entice and persuade students to apply and enroll in a college they never expected to attend. But to the horror of parents and university faculty, academics take a back seat to the celebration of athletic success.

Twenty-four percent of males said their study time was reduced “definitely” or “probably” based on the team’s success on the field. Both in absolute terms and relative to females, male grades tend to decrease significantly when the football team succeeds.

Nearly half of the males surveyed admitted to partying more when the team won.

The effects trickle down to female non-student athletes as well. The researchers found that females whose GPA’s improved alongside the success of the football team were less likely to drop out of college following a winning season, although the exact reason for the decrease is unknown.

The study begs the question, “How do you encourage on-field success while maintaining an emphasis on academic excellence?”

Left up to their own devices, students are going to choose the easy route every time. It is up to the schools to teach them that while athletic success is great, education is the key to real-world achievement.

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  • Nancy
    October 11, 2012

    Good article and one that can probably be documented by every frantic parent of a student in the fall. Interesting that Oregon conducted the study. They probably noticed that since the team started winning, academic results dropped. Oregon has apparently just recently become aware of a problem everybody in the SEC has experienced for many, many years. But I don’t expect much emphasis on the issue, revenue is a huge motivator!

  • Matthew Smith (@cfn_ms)
    October 11, 2012

    A few obvious questions/notes relating to the study (full link here: )

    1) They’ve seen a decline in fall semester academic performance, but what about spring semester? Is there a balance here, whereby students in part or whole make up for fall partying with more effort in the spring? This seems to be the most blatantly obvious thing to look at that they didn’t seem interested in.

    2) Maybe I’m misreading the table on page 21 about the gender gap, but that seems like a pretty small effect. It’s a stable pattern, but a gender gap range that’s 0.05 wide seems pretty small to be highly concerned about.

    3) Similarly, is there a year to year movement? Is some of the decline made up next year? i.e. if the team does well one year, do most students make up for it to at least some degree the next season?

    4) Have they looked at all at non-curved data, such as LSAT, MCAT etc. type tests that outgoing seniors have to take?

    5) The overwhelming majority survey response for “Study” and “Miss Class” among both males and females (page 23) says that football wins/losses have basically NO effect. The only major differences there are partying and consuming alcohol, which suggests that rather than sacrificing academics for partying, they instead may be sacrificing something else (such as “normal” free time).

    6) They really should have had more options for questions 7-18 (page 35), such as “much more”, “more”, “slightly more”, and the same for “less.” If the answer tends to be “slightly more” for partying, that seems like a relatively minor effect.

    7) Is there a split among the types of classes that see declined performance? i.e. are students sacrificing ALL learning, or are they cutting effort more from the (arguably) less important classes, such as general education (as opposed to classes related to majors)?

    8) Isn’t the fact that females are less likely to drop out following a winning season a GOOD thing? Especially since there’s no counter-balancing rise in male drop out rate?

    9) It’s stated that “learning and research … are clearly the most important objectives of post-secondary institutions.” What about developing social networks and general happiness? If students are sacrificing studies for partying, are there corresponding gains in those categories?

    Overall I’d say it’s interesting but would be VERY hesitant to assign any meaningful conclusions to the study.