Athletics

College sports is heading for a fall (essay)

It is fashionable to talk of “bubbles” these days -- unsustainable, somewhat speculative ventures nearing the bursting point: the dot-com stock market bubble in 2000, the housing crisis bubble of a few years ago, and maybe a college tuition bubble today. Broadly defining “bubble,” maybe we are nearing one in major-college intercollegiate sports.

If you ask alumni of the University of Oxford, Moscow State University, the University of Tokyo, or even the nearby University of Toronto, to describe their most successful intercollegiate sports team, you likely will get blank stares.  While amateur, intramural sports activities occur at campuses around the world, the U.S. is unique in having hugely popular, high-revenue collegiate teams. While Great Britain has both top and secondary-level football (soccer) teams, as is the case in American baseball, in the high-revenue American sports of football and basketball, there are overtly professional teams as well as ostensibly amateur college teams comprising so-called “student athletes.”

Yet this model is undergoing a good deal of strain:

  • The financial viability of major college sports importantly derives from “paying” the best “student-athletes” a small fraction of what they would earn in a competitive market; the cartel enforcing low payments to athletes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is facing the possibility of losing a potentially extremely costly lawsuit.
  • At many schools, an athletics arms race is forcing students to pay largely hidden fees to sustain costly sports programs, and there is evidence of a growing disconnect between the desires of older alumni and other sport supporters for good teams and the tastes and preferences of the students being increasingly asked to pay the bills.
  • To sustain noncompetitive labor market practices, the NCAA imposes draconian and Byzantine rules on member schools, but incentives are huge to break those rules, leading to repeated scandals creating an aura of corruption hurting not only collegiate sports but higher education generally.
  • A moral crisis is increasingly apparent: relatively innocent young persons (talented athletes) have income many would say is rightly theirs taken from them by their mentors (coaches) for their own personal use, leading to coaches often earning as much as 10 times as much as the university presidents who run the educational aspects of the institution.
  • Graduation rates of athletes, especially members of minority groups, in the top revenue-producing sports are scandalously low, even below the deplorably low rates of the general student population.  Student status for some athletes is increasingly more nominal than real.

In a competitive labor market, workers usually earn on average roughly what they add to their firm’s revenues. Professional football, baseball and basketball players, for example, sometimes receive salaries reaching several million dollars annually. Top-flight college football and basketball teams generate revenues rivaling those of professional teams, but the workers receive scholarships worth at most $50,000 annually, and that’s only at the most expensive institutions. Very good football and basketball players are very lucrative at top sports schools, so coaches able to recruit them receive a large portion of the millions of dollars that ordinarily would go to the athletes. It is not too far-fetched to say that middle-aged adults are exploiting the children under their guidance.

The NCAA enforces this practice. The NCAA forces players to sign a contract in effect abrogating their labor bargaining rights. Even income earned from, say, t-shirts featuring the name and number of the athlete revert to the colleges. A lawsuit challenging this practice filed by the former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon is moving forward, with very high-powered lawyers representing O’Bannon and other athletes.

If the lawsuit is certified as a class action as early as next month, the stakes become huge, and in one plausible scenario the NCAA could be forced into bankruptcy. More likely would be an out-of-court settlement costing the NCAA and maybe major conferences many millions of dollars. The long-term impact would likely move some of the income received by coaches to players, perhaps also crowding out non-revenue sports funded from football or basketball profits, etc.

Even the NCAA’s own data suggest that only 22 major programs break even or make a profit. In the second-tier athletic conferences, such as the 13-university Mid-American Conference (MAC),  schools typically need $10-20 million annually to balance their athletic budget, increasingly met by student fees that can approach $1,000 a year. A survey of students at MAC member colleges directed by David Ridpath suggests that most students are unaware of the extent of the fees, and unhappy when informed of them, given their general low level of interest in collegiate sports and the increasing financial strains of attending college.

The spectacularly tawdry sex scandal at Penn State that led to the imprisonment of the former coach Jerry Sandusky is the worst example of immorality run amok, but dozens of colleges have been found guilty of violating the NCAA’s rules -- giving money to athletes, making illegal recruiting visits, etc. It is not uncommon to read “Ohio State admits to rules violations,” or “Miami faces NCAA sanctions.”

Increasingly, the public perception of universities as intellectual oases, centers of learning and moral probity, is being tarnished by intercollegiate sports.

What to do? Why haven’t university presidents, who nominally run the NCAA, done anything? First, they are afraid of losing their jobs if they anger their fanatic fans (and sometimes their boards). Second, they love the funds from television contracts and other sports commercialization of their schools -- money may trump principle. I know several ex-university presidents strongly promoting reform, but few actively serving ones.

Still, as costs rise faster than revenues, as scandals persist and grow ever more spectacular, and as multimillion-dollar coaches become ever more arrogant and plutocratic, change will likely come, probably ultimately for the good of college sports, higher education, and the nation.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Rice firing: Are we getting sick of kick-ass coaches? (essay)

Seeing the videotape of the former Rutgers University men’s basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his players reminded me of the footage of Indiana University’s famous basketball coach, Bob Knight, choking one of his players, Neil Reed. Not only reminded me, but brought back unpleasant memories of the incident and the subsequent end of Knight’s career at the university where I taught for many years.

I played a minor role in that drama -- for a long time I was the only faculty member to call for Knight’s firing and I received much public and private abuse for speaking out.  Thus, I was pleased to note that soon after the airing of the tape of Rice’s abusive conduct, more than 50 Rutgers faculty members signed a petition endorsing his firing as well as the dismissal of his boss, the athletics director Tom Pernetti, and some called for the resignation of President Robert Barchi (the former is now gone, along with the university’s lead lawyer, but the president remains, at least for now).

In fact, I see the Mike Rice incident, 13 years after the Bob Knight affair, in historical, rather than personal, terms. The situation reveals a great deal about American sports and social history.   

Before Knight, there was his idol, Woody Hayes, the successful Ohio State football coach -- famous in public for his pounding offensive ground game and, in private, well-known to journalists and many other people for his highly abusive conduct to his players. But no journalist wrote about it and players either accepted it or quietly left the Ohio State team.

Only when Hayes punched an opposing team’s player during the nationally televised 1978 Gator Bowl did the whole world learn of his frequent out-of-control actions toward athletes.   

Ohio State reluctantly fired him. However, many commentators, as well as ordinary Americans, supported him and his treatment of players. They approved of Hayes’s traditional “kick ass” coaching style and its corollary -- parents physically punishing their children.

Knight inherited all of this (he knew and greatly admired Hayes, having played basketball at Ohio State when Hayes was the football coach) and he acted out his own version of harsh physical and mental treatment of his players. Of course, both men imitated military techniques, and not by accident loved military history.  Again, journalists and many people in Indiana knew about Knight’s abusive ways -- and frequently told stories in private about it -- but only when CNN did an investigative report on it in the spring of 2000 did it become public knowledge. Then the videotape clip of Knight choking a player emerged, and the media featured the story.  

But like Hayes, Knight had many defenders, not only Indiana University basketball fans but many national commentators. The latter often held Knight up as a representative of traditional coaching and parenting methods, and quoted such cliches as: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Fast-forward to 2013. This spring, the men’s basketball coach at the University of California at Berkeley, Mike Montgomery, shoved his star player, Allen Crabbe, during a timeout in a game.  The coach pushed him so hard that Crabbe became visibly upset and teammates had to calm him down. The incident was out of character for Montgomery -- he is a very smooth, usually calm coach who worked many years at Stanford and is now at Berkeley -- and he immediately apologized, frequently and profusely. His shove also elicited zero support from the local and national media, nor from any fans.

All this brings us to Rice and the highlight reel of him abusing his players over a number of years. The only support for it that I have seen was in a Jon Stewart compilation clip this month of various Fox News commentators endorsing kick-ass coaching and parenting.

Rice's conduct crossed all current lines of coaching behavior and eventually got him fired. Montgomery saved his job because his conduct was out of character and he apologized quickly and constantly.  Moreover, in an Internet age, it is doubtful that many coaches will use abusive techniques even if they want to. They know that cell phones have cameras and a clip of them abusing a player can go viral before they exit the gym.

Ironically, the media and the public seem ahead of university administrators on this question. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, Rutgers officials knew about Rice’s abusive conduct last fall, and many there saw the full videotape of it. Yet, putting their worries about the legalities of the situation and the image of the university ahead of their concern for the welfare of the athletes, they did not fire the coach until the tape emerged last week.

But the fact remains that for an increasing segment of the media and public, abusive coaching conduct is no longer acceptable. In addition, many studies show that “kick-ass” coaching is mainly ineffective and often counterproductive. A group of social science researchers in New Zealand have worked out an opposite set of coaching techniques -- call them “counter kick-ass” -- and have persuaded the New Zealand national rugby team (the world champion All-Blacks) to use them.  

Finally and most importantly, the decline of Coach Kick-Ass is important for parents and children. Too often in the past, sometimes in the present, parents have justified physical and mental abuse of children by invoking sports coaches. If the Mike Rice tape can convince one parent not to hit one child, then it had a salutary effect.

Murray Sperber is a visiting professor in the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education program at the University of California at Berkeley.

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Rutgers says it didn't have cause to fire Rice. Contract suggests otherwise

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Rutgers officials say they previously lacked legal justification to fire now-dismissed men's basketball coach, but multiple clauses in his contract -- and the findings of an independent investigation -- suggest otherwise.

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