Saturday, September 3, 2011

Can We Fix College Sports?

            A new season of college football is upon us, and as we delight in the thrilling plays, the superhuman feats of athleticism, the inspiring pageantry, and the heart-warming school spirit, out of the corner of our eye we’ll be watching for the next recruiting scandal, the next illicit payoff, the next tale of vanishingly small graduation rates, and the next shift of teams to new conferences.  It happens every year.  Just when we think we’ve seen the worst, participants in this fall drama surprise us.  Coaches earn many times what college presidents do, “amateur” athletes auction themselves off to the highest bidder, and universities find ways to keep athletes eligible with silly courses that can’t be failed.  Every year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), charged with regulating college sports and policing the regulations, promulgates more rules and threatens more draconian penalties for violations.  Athletes lose eligibility.  Teams forfeit games. And sometimes—rarely—schools get the “death penalty”—a loss of scholarships, disqualification from future bowl games, and even suspension of the program all together. Yet every year, schools either find ways to skirt the rules, or just violate them.  And every few years, a new NCAA commissioner, drawn from the ranks of respected academics, promises to get tough and fix things.

            It has reached a point, I think, where most fans have given up.  Some have just stopped following the sport.  Some have buried their heads in the sand and avoided coverage of the scandals in the news.  And some have urged that we abandon the “amateur” charade, and just start paying athletes as the professionals they really are.

            As someone who has spent a long career teaching at an institution in which athletic scandals are not a problem, I am nonetheless deeply shamed by practices that cast doubt on the integrity of all academic institutions.  Is there really no way to fix the problem?

            Actually, I think we can fix it.  We can exploit an invaluable lesson taught more than half a century ago by Kurt Lewin, one of the founding fathers of social psychology.  Lewin observed that motivation is often a portrait of people in conflict.  Some forces push toward action; others push toward inaction.  Or some forces push toward one action, whereas other forces push toward a different action.  Lewin further observed that most of the time, when we want someone to do X, we try to make the forces that encourage X stronger.  To get our kids to study hard, we offer rewards for good grades or threaten punishments for bad ones.  But, Lewin argued, it may often be easier to identify the forces that are impeding the behavior we want, and weaken them.  If countervailing forces are weakened sufficiently, little needs to be done to get the behavior we want.

            So, in the case of college athletics, the NCAA has laid one carrot and stick on the table after another to get institutions to follow the rules.  And nothing has worked.  Let us ask, instead, what are the forces that are interfering with ethical conduct in college athletics, and what can be done to weaken them.

            Well, the 800-pound gorilla is money.  Leaving aside the revenue from ticket sales, souvenirs, and concessions that the University of Michigan, or Ohio State, or Penn State, or the University of Texas take in whenever they play before 100,000 fans at their home stadiums, there are literally billions of dollars on the table from television.  And millions more from participating in end-of-the-season bowl games. Is there anything to be done to weaken the financial incentives that are blocking schools from doing the right thing?  Can we take some of the money away?

            Some have suggested that revenues from football (and men’s basketball, the other big-money sport) go into the general operating budget of universities and not back to athletic departments. That way, the incentive to break the rules will be weaker.  But a move like this is just self-deception.  We all know how fungible budget categories are. If football money goes for, say, scholarships, then what used to be scholarship money will go for football.

            No, a more radical solution is needed.  What if all the revenue produced by college sports was put into one big pot, and then divided among all colleges and universities pro rata, based on how many students attend.  Then, Ohio State would be playing to enrich Ohio State, but not only Ohio State.  Some of its money would go to Harvard, some to the University of Washington, some to Gallaudet, some to Wesleyan, and some to Swarthmore.  All schools would welcome the revenue, and could use it in whatever ways most enhanced their academic programs.  Sure, more money would still be better than less, but there would be much less reason to cheat with the financial rewards for cheating diluted in this way.  There would also be less money available to provide outsized contracts to coaches.

            We can’t stop TV networks from throwing money at colleges, but we can stop the colleges from catching it.  And if we do—if we remove the temptation that challenges honesty and integrity, people’s desire to be able to look at themselves in the mirror each morning might take control.

            Come to think of it, this might be a good way to reform financial institutions.  I have no doubt that the Dodd-Frank regulation of financial institutions will have salutary effects—for a while.  But if history is any guide, it won’t be long before these institutions find ways around these new regulations.  The problem, as with college sports, is too much money washing around in the system.  But we could take some of it away.  We could impose a healthy tax on short-term financial transactions (the so-called Tobin tax).  We could tax hedge fund profits as ordinary income rather than as capital gains.  Indeed, we could tax capital gains as ordinary income.  If we make the rewards for irresponsible, if not illegal, speculation less plentiful, we may remove the countervailing force that prevents people from doing the right thing.  And from what I read, the U.S. Treasury, like our colleges and universities, could certainly use the money.

            Instead of continuing to believe, in the face of years and years of disconfirming evidence, that the right combination of rules and incentives is the way to get either our college football teams, or our banks, to do the right thing, we might just try taking a page from Kurt Lewin and instead take away the obstacles that are preventing them from doing the right thing.  It’s certainly worth a try.

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