College football bowl games give both teams and fans a huge boost—and they can also give student-athletes a spark in the classroom, new research shows.
Not surprisingly, there has been concern that playing in postseason bowl games at end of the fall semester could have an adverse effect on players’ grades. Those concerns are now being heightened by the push to expand the college football playoffs. But a new study from the University of Missouri shows that the chance to compete in the postseason can actually motivate student-athletes to remain academically eligible to play football.
“On one hand, you might think all the extra practices and travel around final exam [time] might serve as a potential distraction, but the research seems to suggest some positive academic benefits of the players continuing to be around their teammates, coaches and academic advisors within the athletic department,” says Bradley Curs, co-author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Missouri’s College of Education and Human Development.
“Maintaining the structure that comes with daily routines on campus throughout the season can be potentially helpful academically compared to leaving campus around final examinations and not having as much social support or structure at home,” Curs says.
Curs and co-author Casandra Harper, also an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, compared academic data for student-athletes on 130 teams who did and didn’t play in bowl games between 2003 to 2018. They analyzed three academic categories: retention (whether the players returned for the following semester); whether they maintained academic eligibility based on grade point average and credit-hour requirements; and the teams’ overall Academic Progress Rate, which tracks players’ progress toward graduation based on retention and eligibility rates. College and universities risk sanctions if certain Academic Progress Rate benchmarks are not met.
Bowl games had no impact on retention but academic eligibility rates and overall Academic Progress Rate scores were slightly higher for football players who competed in the postseason. “There are many incentives to the players for competing in the bowl games, including prizes and cash, maybe the chance to travel to a new city that many of the players have never visited before, and the exposure of playing on national television,” Curs says. “These opportunities may motivate players to finish off the academic semester strong so they remain eligible and can enjoy playing one last game with their teammates.”
The findings should alleviate some concerns from university administrators or athletic departments that participating in bowl games can harm students’ academic performance, Curs concludes.