November 2007 Archives

Bucks or Books?

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A while back, I was visiting one of the nation’s best state universities, which, as it happens, also has one of the nation’s more successful football programs. When queried at dinner by a group of faculty about my personal interests and passions, I cited college football. My dinner companions could not have been more appalled if I had lifted my leg and broken wind emphatically enough to extinguish every candle on the table. Some of this almost studied academic disdain for college football is simple snobbery of the same kind that fairly oozes from the people who can’t wait to tell you that they don’t even own a television. My typical response to this is to start bragging about my sixty-inch Sony HDTV with a picture so clear that you can read the tattoo on the quarterback’s forearm.
On the other hand, there are obviously some very legitimate concerns that faculty, including the old bloviating Bulldog himself, may have about this whole athletic enterprise, which just keeps getting both bigger and steadily less relevant to what we on the academic side believe that universities are supposed to be about. Although there are some very notable exceptions, based on my experience at four SEC schools—That’s right, four! Ole Miss, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. You wanna make something of it?—over the last twenty-five years I’d say, conservatively, that without their superior physical skills, not many more than half the athletes in revenue-producing sports, i.e., football and basketball, would actually have been admitted to the schools they represent. This is not to say that a number—given the stresses and distractions they face, I’d even say a surprising number--don’t go on to exceed expectations and graduate. There are also a great many players, however, who are simply surviving semester by semester by virtue of elaborate support systems featuring not only intensive tutoring but careful guidance as to what courses (and perhaps even what professors) to take in order to stay eligible for one more season until the NFL or the NBA beckons. Less than 1 percent of so-called student-athletes ever receive this call, of course. This reality has led to longstanding charges that these young people are being shamelessly exploited and should be compensated financially for their efforts.
Sunday’s New York Times offered yet another argument along these lines, this one crafted by Michael Lewis whose book, The Blind Side, tells the story of Michael Oher whose collegiate and professional potential as a left offensive tackle (who protects a right-handed quarterback’s blind side) utterly obscured Oher’s stunning academic inadequacies in the minds of collegiate football recruiters, and, in my view, the minds of some of his personal supporters who managed through all manner of finaglement to get him enrolled Ole Miss as well .
As the specific premise for his argument that college players should be paid, Lewis cites the huge take from college football at places like Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Texas, which raked in over $60 million in 2005, (UGA failed the initiation requirement for this exclusive little club by a mere $1 million.) as well as the utterly obscene $32-million payoff that Alabama plunked down to get Nick Saban to become the next sideline underachiever in what will always be the lair of “the Bear.”
Such figures make it hard to deny that something’s more than a little out of whack here, but Lewis’s argument for making hired hands out of college athletes is also a bit off the mark.. Having told us what anybody who’s paying the least bit of attention already knows, i.e., college football is a lot more about the bucks than the books—Lewis then offers this foolish hypothetical:
“Last year the average N.F.L. team had revenue of about $200 million and ran payrolls of roughly $130 million: 60 percent to 70 percent of a team’s revenues, therefore, go directly to the players. There’s no reason those numbers would be any lower on a college football team — and there’s some reason to think they’d be higher. It’s easy to imagine the Universities of Alabama ($44 million in revenue), Michigan ($50 million), Georgia ($59 million) and many others paying the players even more than they take in directly from their football operations, just to keep school spirit flowing. (Go Dawgs!)”
For a guy who is supposedly truly in the know about college sports, Lewis does a jam-up imitation of somebody just back from a thirty-year sabbatical on Neptune. College athletic programs are about as loose with their money as the pre-Christmas Eve Ebenezer Scrooge was with Bob Cratchit’s wages. In offering a flesh-and-blood example of how this might work, Lewis really sounds foolish:
“For instance, in 2005 the Texas Longhorns would have paid Vince Young roughly $5 million for the season. In quarterbacking the Longhorns free of charge, Young, in effect, was making a donation to the university of $5 million a year — and also, by putting his health on the line, taking a huge career risk.”
On a purely economic level, places like Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and many other less successful programs are turning away would-be season ticket purchasers by the hundreds. Vince Young doubtless helped Texas to up its take, but I doubt that the UT athletic director would have been out working the street corner with a tin cup had Vince opted to play hockey at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Granted, poor performance over time will shrink the contribution stream and, if it continues, perhaps even the ticket sales, but the revenues from college football are a lot less reflective of the drawing power of the team’s best players than they are in the NFL.
As to Vince Young’s risk, those risks were inevitable if he was to have the opportunity to achieve stardom in the NFL. He had already been taking them in high school in order to get the chance to play at a place like Texas, where he would have a premier staging area to showcase his capacity to excel at the “next level.” What Vince Young stood to lose by playing football at the University of Texas was precisely what he stood to gain; it would not have existed in the first place had he chosen to stay off the gridiron. Finally, are we to assume that he was just as attractive an NFL prospect when he arrived in Austin as when he left? Did he benefit not a whit from the coaching and state of the art training facilities that were available to him as a Longhorn?
On the subject of benefits, for me, at least, the most irksome aspect of the argument that players should be paid is the implicit premise that their opportunity to earn a college degree amounts to no compensation at all. Even with the remarkable success stories of athletes who managed to take advantage of this opportunity that otherwise would not have been available to them, graduation rates at most big-time football schools are admittedly appalling at best. Failure to graduate can be tough for anyone to handle, I realize, and I know that there are some athletes who are injured by their frustrating experiences in the classroom just as surely as by their mishaps on the playing field. Still, I have yet to see any compelling evidence that attending college without graduating caused a significant number of people to be worse off than they would have been had they never set foot on a campus. Thanks to the much-maligned fanaticism surrounding college football, even those who play mostly on special teams and live in relative obscurity compared to the team’s star players achieve a level of celebrity status that can easily open employment or career doors that might otherwise have remained closed.
I am far from pleased with what I see as the ever-increasing estrangement of academics and athletics on most major university campuses, and I think that we also ignore at our peril the widening class and cultural chasm that comes from recruiting college students primarily on their physical abilities. Clearly, many of today’s college football players come from homes where the economic need is severe. Still, the slim chance that any but a very few will be making their living as athletes suggests to me that they will ultimately be far better served if we focus on making them full-time students pursuing their own long-term personal development rather than further differentiating their status and collegiate experience by making them temporary employees who are on the payroll only for the short time that they are available to amuse us.

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