Are Sports Killing American Academics?

Given that the Olympics are in full swing, it seems appropriate that I take some time to investigate sports in general. I’ve been asking some of my friends this question: “Do you think that Americans’ huge emphasis on sports culture contributes to our dominant Olympics showings?” Most seem to think that makes sense. This has led me to wonder whether our obsessive sports culture hamstrings our intellectual potential.

In the past, many have made the claim that athletics and academics are mutually exclusive. These claims mostly come from intellectuals, who have something to gain by saying that; they’re increasing the barriers to entry for athletes. Others hold that athletics and academics exhibit synergies that enable scholar-athletes to be better at both disciplines.

The truth, it seems, falls somewhere in between. The 2011 sports participation rate in high schools was 55.5%, meaning that over half of all high schoolers played sports. Separate studies of Minnesota and North Carolina high schools indicate that student athletes had higher GPAs than non-athletes by up to a point. Provocative, to be sure.

However, such studies omit important demographic data. Andreas Santucci of Berkeley (pdf) admits in his comparative study of athletes and non-athletes that “our data set is also deficient of demographic identifiers that may be useful in predicting college performance. Variables such as age, parental income, parental education level, and ethnicity have all been omitted and have the potential to cause bias.” The omission of this data is intriguing.

Consider this: many sports are expensive; even the humble running shoe can cost hundreds of dollars. This would necessitate a student athlete’s parent to have money. (Of course, this isn’t the case for some athletes, who are naturally talented even without expensive equipment.) In any case, as Levitt and Dubner pointed out in Freakonomics, parents’ education and wealth are massive causal factors in their children’s success. Thus, it seems more likely that student athletes have wealthier parents, rather than the alternative of sports boosting academic outcomes.

If my analysis is correct and sports don’t directly impact grades, do they confer a benefit? Certainly, I would argue. Sports help students keep up their physical fitness which does, in fact, help keep people alert and focused. More importantly, sports force students to develop strong time management skills. If you need to wake up for 5 AM swim practice, go to school for 8 hours, go to afternoon swim practice, eat dinner, do homework, and get enough sleep, you need to learn to be hyper-efficient. This skill, it seems, is what explains synergistic outcomes for scholar-athletes. Furthermore, such students have educated, wealthier parents, as stated previously; these parents are instrumental in driving both sports and academic outcomes by serving as role models and advisors, and encouraging personal ambition.

Maya Dirado is good at sports.
This is Maya Dirado. She’s a champion swimmer and an exceptionally smart Stanford grad. Most people are not like her.

Hence, we see that some student-athletes truly are phenomenal at both disciplines. Superstar swimmer Maya DiRado not only won Olympic medals, but also aced the SAT Math section, started Stanford at 17, and has a job lined up at McKinsey in Atlanta. However, these people are few and far between. Moreover, DiRado shows us something important: the fact that a scholar-athlete must choose one path forward. It is impossible for most people to excel equally at two disciplines forever; thus, DiRado is retiring from swimming to pursue her business career. Clearly, scholar-athletes face a constant choice: pursue athletics or academics?

Here is where perverse incentives come into play (for more on perverse incentives, see Phishing for Phools). We are constantly bombarded with media about professional athletes. We celebrate Olympic heroes like Phelps and Bolt. We watch baseball, basketball, hockey, and football almost year-round. We obsess over doping scandals. Mass media is so engrossed in telling these tales that the Sports section in a given paper will regularly trounce the Education section, if there is one. The main effect of a constant spotlight on sports is inspiring young people; however this inspiration is deceptive because sports stories rarely highlight how astronomically difficult it is to become a pro athlete.

False Promise

By making lucrative professional athleticism seem attainable, our society constantly deludes many young people into making the wrong choice. For example, here are some stats on male athletes’ chances of going pro. The likelihood of a high school basketball player being eventually drafted by an NBA team is 0.03%. The chance of a high school football player being drafted by an NFL team is 0.09%. The probability of a high school baseball player making the major leagues is 0.015%. These are stats on being drafted, not actually playing (and thereby making the big bucks). The stats for women’s basketball are a bit better and the stats for other sports like swimming are practically negligible because some of these athletes barely make enough money to survive.

Let’s take a look at elite academics. High schools are expected to graduate 3.3 million seniors this upcoming year. Of that cohort, ~97,000 will get into one of the top 25 colleges in the US (data from US News & World Report); this equates to 2.94% of graduating seniors. 0.44% of seniors will go to the top 10 schools. It’s easier to go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton than it is to become a professional athlete. That lone fact should make more people want to be nerds than athletes, but the opposite is true in our society.

What does this all mean? Sports are definitely good for you: they keep you fit and help your mind stay sharp. They teach you to manage a limited amount of time well. However, obsessing about sports and believing that they are a ticket to future success is a misguided and harmful belief. Unless you’re a Katie Ledecky, a Manning, or a Sydney MacLaughlin, professional sports are probably not for you.

She is good at sportsing.

A parting fact from SuperFreakonomics: the biggest predictor of becoming a professional athlete is if one or both of your parents were pros in that sport. So, if you wanted to be a pro athlete and fell short, you can blame them. On the other hand, if you’ve got a higher education and they had college degrees, you should probably be thanking them right now.

Also published on Medium.


  1. Thoughtful post Rahul. I wonder what the breakdown is among professional sports that primarily recruit from collegiate programs, such as football and basketball, as opposed to those that primarily recruit from high school programs, such as baseball.

  2. I think the answer to the question you develop in the third and fourth to last paragraphs comes from risk-reward behavior/considerations. An NBA player will make more than the overwhelming majority of Ivy-League graduates, especially if you consider time value of money and how they are making millions at 23 whereas a college graduate can MAYBE expect 6 figures, but only on some fields. Yeah it’s easier to go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, but your English degree won’t get you 7 figures at 23. So if you are a little bit more risk-taking you go for the big bucks and take the gamble.

    1. Pro athletes certainly make a lot more than most people can hope to, even the highly educated. However, the majority of athletes tend to go broke by the age of 40 (i.e. about the time they’re retiring). This can be attributed to a lack of fundamental education about managing one’s finances.

      Regardless, pro players are not my main concern. Most pro athletes (or their parents / coaches) know quite early in life that they’re going to be phenomenal. Many Olympic swimmers were crushing their competition in their early teens. Many pro basketball players exhibit extreme height and talent quite early in their development as athletes. I have no desire to discourage those people.

      My argument is that most student-athletes (i.e. the ones who don’t display crazy talent) are being foolish by putting their career goals in the sports basket versus the education basket. I think that most athletes who want to succeed in high-competition sports (like baseball or basketball) would be better served by focusing on academics if they’re not exhibiting exceptional skills early on. I’m not comparing Ivy grads to pro players because, as I said, potential pro players can be quite easy to spot early on. Instead, I’m comparing Ivy grads to state school grads who didn’t focus on school because they thought sports would be their saving grace.

      Grads from top schools are shown to make $60,000 starting salary vs. the $40,000 starting pay of their state school peers. If we assume that a given person’s career lasts 50 years with constant pay growth of 3% per year, the elite grad will have made $2.26 million more than the state school grad over his/her lifetime.

      Thus, I don’t think the risk-reward tradeoff is a truly valid explanation for this phenomenon. Rather, it seems to be a combination of confirmation bias (only paying attention to things that confirm that your dream will work out) and sunk-cost fallacy (over-weighting your previous efforts while a better path presents itself). Those psychological factors, combined with propaganda from sports media, definitely mislead the students who aren’t already exceptionally talented.

  3. Howdy! This article could not be written much better! Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I am going to send this article to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a very good read. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.