Friday, January 08, 2010

Are We On the Cusp of True Reform in Athletics?

By Richard Vedder

Serious individuals of all political perspectives agree that intercollegiate athletics have become a scandal and a burden. More and more schools are doing absolutely reprehensible and dishonest things to win. Florida State is the latest example, but not the only one. Tennessee lures promising high school senior athletes with sexy looking girls, Florida State takes kids who are nearly illiterate, other schools give athletes perks under the table, many schools are literally letting staff go and reducing salaries while athletic budgets continue to grow. Adults (football coaches, for example) enrich themselves off the exploitative profits made from accomplished football and basketball players. It is not uncommon for mediocre athletic powers hoping for greatness to lose perhaps $15 million a year on their sports programs --real money. Classes are canceled to let kids go watch a game (Alabama), and academic values are subordinated. The Bubbas are triumphing over the Nerds, even though in real life (e.g., at age 30, 40, or 50) the Nerds tend to triumph.

What to do? Unilateral approaches do not work. Neither the US nor the USSR would disarm during the Cold War, anymore than Texas will scale back outlays on sports unless Oklahoma, Alabama and many other rivals do as well.

I have always thought it would take concerted moves by whole conferences or by large numbers of university presidents acting together to change this --and even that has only a 50-50 chance at success. A friend of mine, an extremely prominent ex-university president at a prestigious university, tells me that I am naive. University presidents are hopeless. It will take a smoking gun, a scandal that captures the indignation of the broader public to effect change. Evidence that college football players die early because of sports related injuries, while working for pennies to provide income for coaches making millions a year --or something like that.

The more I think about it, I think my friend is right. A good 60 Minutes television expose, a powerful congressional hearing complete with prostitutes hired by athletic departments to service aspiring athletes, ex-athletes who are living in destitution from brain injuries, etc.

The pity is I think intercollegiate athletics, in moderation, are fine. Aside from providing entertainment for students and alums, they help universities develop a sense of community. They teach a variety of useful skills for the athletes themselves, including the importance of discipline, hard work, and leadership. But Socrates was right --there is a "golden mean" -- a moderate amount of emphasis on sports is good, too much is bad.

One reason for the intense interest in sports amongst members of university communities is that there is no other bottom line. Alabama and Texas have great football teams by objective, quantifiable measures --but do UT seniors know more, think better, act more ethical than UT freshmen? Who knows? We at CCAP want to see intercollegiate sports continue --but in a way more compatible with the values and finances of these institutions.