How Does Football Success Affect Student Performance?

New research suggests that students study less and party more when their football team wins—and a successful season on the gridiron significantly reduces the grades of male students relative to females.

According to a study published in the October issue of American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, male nonathletes were more likely than females to increase their alcohol consumption and partying, and decrease their study time, in response to the success of the team.

Women also reported that their behavior was affected by football wins, most likely impairing their academic performance. But they didn’t suffer such great consequences in the classroom, the study found, as their declines were masked by grade curves.

Previous research on the effects of big-time sports has focused primarily on its impact on student applications, enrollment, and alumni giving. This study—by Jason M. Lindo, Isaac D. Swensen, and Glen R. Waddell, three researchers at the University of Oregon—looked at the effect of football success on student grade-point averages on the Eugene campus over nine football seasons.

Over that time, the Ducks’ football program has had much success, including an appearance in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. As the fervor for the team has grown, Waddell said in an interview, he and his fellow authors wondered how that was affecting students’ grades.

The researchers found, among other things, that:

  • Twenty-four percent of males reported that athletic success either “definitely” or “probably” decreased their study time, compared with only 9 percent of females.
  • Male grades fell significantly with the success of the football team, both in absolute terms and relative to females.
  • Forty-seven percent of males reported increased partying when the team won, compared with 28 percent of females.
  • Females whose GPA’s increased with the success of the football team—including those with low ability, those with high financial need, and African-American students—were less likely to drop out of college after a successful season. (The researchers could not determine whether that was a result of their improved academic performance, or by more direct effects of the team’s success.) The study found no evidence that football success had any impact on males’ dropout behavior.
  • Female students were slightly more likely than male students to indicate an increased tendency to miss class associated with a win. However, the result was not significant, the researchers said.
  • Some 40 percent of female students, and more than 50 percent of males, watched 10 or more games out of 12 during the 2010 season.

Both in absolute terms and relative to females, athletic success decreases males’ academic time investments and increases time spent in distracting or risky behaviors.

That said, we also find an impact on female behaviors, including studying, alcohol consumption, and partying. While our previous empirical analysis of grades can primarily speak to relative performance, our survey results suggest that the impact of athletic success on academic performance or learning likely extends to females.

Waddell, an associate professor of economics, would like to see more research in this area, particularly as institutional subsidies for sports continue to grow.

“This is something we all need to be digging into and understanding better,” he said. “My hope is that others will start paying attention to this and taking it seriously and asking tough questions of the data.”

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