Thursday, November 29, 2012

Essay Review: Matt Hinton, "Billionaire Ball," from The Baffler #20 (Part 1)

Over on the Twitter, Will Leitch stated that Jonathan Chait's blog post for New York was the "definite take" on the Big Ten's expansion "madness." I can't really agree with this, as the definitive take on the economics of college athletics had already appeared in June, in an essay by Matt Hinton in The Baffler #20. A quick consultation of Google indicates that the intersection of sports bloggers and people who read left-wing cultural agitprop is me and Mr. Hinton, the difference between us being that he gets paid for it. To summarize:

Thus, it falls to me to inform the survivors of the Maryland/Rutgers apocalypse that Hinton thoroughly described the pernicious influence of money on college athletics over the offseason and predicted the music was nowhere near finished in the conferences' game of musical chairs. In Part 2 of this tl;dr post, I'll discuss what I think the landscape will be like when the revenues are maximized and the new equilibrium is reached. Here in Part 1, I'll discuss Hinton's dissection of the history and future of college athletics, which The Baffler's section editor helpfully labeled as "Studies in Total Depravity."

The theme of issue 20 of The Baffler is "the inert, sterile, and depraved cultural leavings of our plutocratic age." It was a pleasant surprise to see sports unquestionably included as part of our (sterile) culture and treated equally with weightier topics such as biographies of Barack Obama and the oversized influence of the Pew Charitable Trust. When compared Steve Almond's confusing rant against Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert or Heather Havrilesky's bizarre take on class on television (as evidenced by the behaviors of characters on Downton Abbey and Two Broke Girls‽), "Billionaire Ball" is impeccably researched and argued. The Baffler is at its weakest when criticizing middle-brow liberal habits because its audience is mainly liberals who think themselves too smart to uncritically accept what Stewart, Colbert, or Ira Glass has to say. For Hinton to convince this audience that they should read an essay about college football, he had to jump over a high bar just to get in the door.

The main theme of "Billionaire Ball" is the story of how big money has influenced college football over the years and most of the examples cited will come as no surprise to readers in the sports blogosphere -- the exploits of Phil Knight at Oregon and T. Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State are CFB Economics 101. The theme is introduced using Hinton's hometown Texas Longhorns as the most extreme example of a modern athletic department using brand licensing, fundraising, and television rights to become "a self-sustaining corporate entity using the university as a tax shelter." This was written well before Mack Brown complained that the Longhorn Network interferes with his coaching. Texas, Oregon, and Oklahoma State are three of the "haves" in the current college football landscape where boosters have essentially unaccountable power: Phil Knight's pushback against an Oregon-student-led anti-sweatshop movement is recounted with special scorn. In bad news for Big Ten fans, Rutgers is given an as example of a "have-not," where a debt-ridden athletic department collects 47% of its budget from student fees and the university's general fund. Between Rutgers's raid on its general fund and Maryland's blatant admission that Big Ten membership is necessary in order to get its athletic department in the black, it's painfully obvious that those schools need the Big Ten more than the Big Ten needs them to extend BTN influence in the New York and Washington markets.

Because the essay is aimed at readers who may have no interest in, or even antipathy towards, college sports, "Billionaire Ball" tells its sordid tale chronologically, beginning with moments in pre-modern football history like Teddy Roosevelt's notorious 1905 proposed ban, the exclusion of Notre Dame from the Big Ten, and the dissolution of football at the University of Chicago as "an infernal nuisance." The beginning of the modern era of CFB is set at 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled that an NCAA-controlled television rights plan was a violation of anti-trust laws. With conferences and schools free to make their own financial arrangements with the TV networks, broadcast dollars for the major conferences have grown rapidly for both regular-season games and the BCS; the NCAA makes do with the proceeds from March Madness, its only profitable postseason tournament.

Hinton argues that this influx of cash makes the notion of the amateur "scholar-athlete" even more ludicrous, and cites the examples of Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA and EA Sports and Ohio State tattoo scandal as examples of how everyone is getting rich except the players. The incomprehensible scene last weekend in Columbus, of Jim Tressel being carried around the field, of Maurice Clarett and the 2002 championship team being honored only becomes comprehensible if the "scholar-athlete" is nowhere near as important to a university than revenue and victory. The Michigan fanbase's insistence that we would never honor Chris Webber like that means little as there is no cost in ostracizing him to either U-M (in terms of revenue or championships vacated) or to Webber (in terms of wealth or reputation).

As many Michigan fans will be happy to tell you, at considerable length, what makes college athletics special is the tradition. The NFL is forty years away from any of its members having a "Team 133." As Hinton observes, tradition, italicized in the original, is what keeps college basketball and football from being nothing more than glorified minor leagues; because baseball and hockey have older traditions off-campus and alternate routes to the professional ranks, their collegiate presence does not have the same national impact. (Even so, college hockey, baseball, and lacrosse in particular have huge regional presences.) The increasingly desperate attempts of the Big East to remain a relevant football powerhouse have destroyed its tradition to the point where it's no longer a compelling product in any sport, even in basketball, where Tulane-Villanova and Boise State-Georgetown match-ups promise an uninteresting future.

The theme of Baffler #20 is the corrupting effect that big money has on cultural institutions like college athletics. The all-pervasive influence of money is more obvious than ever before now that conferences can't even wait until the end of football season to announce realignments, but it's hiding the quintessential corruption that has infected college sports since the 19th century: the bizarre equivalence of "student-athlete" with "amateur athlete." In no academic field of study are students prohibited from receiving compensation for working in their areas of specialization. In professional fields, students are typically required to work under the supervision of an experienced mentor; while unpaid internships are not unheard of, they are being increasingly considered scandalous as they restrict entry to the profession to the already wealthy.

The NCAA rules governing amateurism are rightly also being increasingly considered scandalous, but, contra Robert Wheel and Taylor Branch, they are not the rules of the plantation or the rules of colonization. The casual use of slavery analogies forgets that fact that the current complaints of bias against African-American players are almost exact echoes of the Fielding Yost-Knute Rockne feud in the 1920s, in which Rockne accused Yost of anti-Catholic bias. Yost even wrote to Rockne that some of his best friends were Catholic! The heart of Yost's stated complaint against Notre Dame was differing interpretations of both the eligibility and on-field rules, and Yost did not want Notre Dame in the Western Conference unless they followed the conference rules.

The Yost-Rockne feud illustrates the other misuse of the word "amateurism" in the NCAA lexicon, where amateurism is somehow a prerequisite for "fair play." North America's Big Four professional sports leagues have fair play despite paying their players, with the NFL leading the way in leveling the playing field between small and large markets. College sports wouldn't be fair if Notre Dame could pay its athletes $100,000/year and Northwestern couldn't pay them anything, so the NCAA and its predecessor institutions set the salary cap at zero.

The great scandal of the early days of college football was universities using professional players instead of students, which was both a violation of academic standards and notions of fair play. NCAA amateurism rules are descended from the rules developed 100 years ago to address this problem, but these rules were developed by wealthy old men for wealthy young men.  The idealized "student-athlete" of the NCAA is a turn-of-the-20th-century Eli or Harvard Man, who can earn a "Gentleman's C" despite putting football ahead of his studies and support himself off his family's fortune until he graduates. These rules weren't written by people with the imagination to consider that someone like Michael Phelps, who was at the top his sport before he reached college age, could be a student-athlete. They also didn't consider the possibility that a student-athlete could come from a place like Pahokee, Florida, and need to earn income to support himself and his family while in college.

The person who may come closest to the current ideal of the NCAA "student-athlete" is Missy Franklin, whose family is sufficiently well-off that she can turn down endorsement bonuses from USA Swimming in order to retain her NCAA eligibility. It helps that NCAA rules allow her to keep $100,000 per Olympic gold medal earned but, even still, Franklin shouldn't have to play kabuki to remain amateur status for the NCAA. She and her family want her to attend college. She intends to abide by the same rules as all other collegiate swimmers. The ideals that the NCAA should be enforcing, the maintenance of academic standards and the fairness of play, hold whether or not Franklin gets $50,000 from USA Swimming for setting a world record in the 200-m backstroke.

Franklin is, of course, nowhere near the typical athlete who attends college on a football or basketball scholarship. In the revenue sports, it is far more important that the NCAA ensure that academic standards are being enforced. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Pargman has proposed that athletes should be allowed to major in fields such as sports performance and coaching as these programs would be analogous to music and dance performance curricula. The NCAA could take a role in accrediting that these programs are legitimate fields of study, much like ABET does for engineering. Athletic departments could be punished for not enforcing acceptable academic standards and for not achieving acceptable graduation rates; The Academic Progress Rating is a flawed step in this direction. The NCAA should not have a problem with athletes leaving early for the professional ranks, as long as they continue to work towards their degrees. Shaquille O'Neal and Vince Carter working in the off-seasons to get their diplomas is an academic success story; even John Calipari's one-and-done model at Kentucky could be acceptable if Anthony Davis et al. continue to demonstrate a commitment towards eventually earning their degrees.

Maintaining fair play between institutions would be harder for the NCAA to enforce because of the massive differences in revenue generation across sports and member institutions. Some sort of "salary cap" and revenue sharing arrangement will be necessary. A salary cap of $50-60K per athlete would be in line with a top undergraduate internship in computer science. Revenue sharing between the haves and have-nots is the NCAA could help the Indiana States of the world: if Michigan earns enough football revenue to support not only its 85 scholarship athletes but also Directional Michigan's 255 football scholarships, this is in keeping with a university's mission to educate as many students as possible. Above the salary cap, athletes should be awarded a portion of the revenue they provide the university: for games like NCAA Football, this can be divided equally among all athletes all schools; for jerseys and other individualized merchandise, the proceeds should go the individual player. At worst, the university can hold the additional revenue for each player until he/she exhausts NCAA eligibility. In this case, this revenue should still be accessible to players whose families are suffering financial hardships.

Despite the fact that marriage between academia and big-time athletics is unique to the U.S., college sports are far from being the "infernal nuisance" that Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins claimed. In fact, no university more shamelessly exploited the power of athletics to build its reputation than Chicago did; Notre Dame and Duke are mere amateurs by comparison. As detailed in Robin Lester's Stagg's University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall, of Big-Time Football in Chicago, William Rainey Harper paid handsomely for Amos Alonzo Stagg's services because he believed in football's power to increase his new university's public reputation. The university supported Stagg in defiance of its own principles: established as an integrated institution in 1890, Chicago allowed Stagg to hold the segregated National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament until 1930. Once football has served its purpose to build Chicago's academic and public reputation, the shameless coup de grace was for Hutchins to self-righteously eliminate it, thereby branding Chicago as a school too good to participate in big-time athletics. (A lesser variation of this branding is used by Northwestern and Vanderbilt, which advertise themselves as schools too good to be successful in big-time athletics.)

College athletics, if properly managed, can benefit the university as a whole. Managing the balance between a level playing field, proper compensation for athletes, and ensuring that the athletes are students in the truest sense of the word is more important for the future of college sports than enforcing the antiquated notion of amateurism with which these concepts have been conflated. Maintaining some more proper notion of the student-athlete is necessary for the long-term prospects of the NCAA, because, as Hinton notes, if "valuable players are increasingly aloof" from the student body, then "the game begins to feel watered-down, homogenized, and predictable." For the odd marriage that is college athletics to survive, it has be more than just minor leagues. They have to connect to a long academic and athletic tradition.  In Part 2, I'll propose how this tradition can be maintained as best as possible while athletic departments and conferences try to maximize revenue.


Andrew Cox said...

Hinton is one of the very best out there today. That said (and I should note that I haven't read and don't have access to the Baffler article), what Hinton and this author seem to fail to integrate into their stories is that college athletes ARE INDEED PAID FOR THEIR SERVICES. It's called a scholarship, it can be worth >$100,000 depending on the institution and where the student is from, and it pays dividends for the rest of the student's life if he or she graduates. This is not to say that $$ is a pernicious influence - it is. But let's stop pretending that athletes get the raw end of the deal just because they aren't making millions like their professional counterparts.

David said...

Thanks for the feedback. Writing "set the salary cap at zero" was misleading because scholarships are indeed compensation in terms of services rendered. Most of the "dividends for the rest of the student's life" are not compensation as these are not goods or services provided by the university to the student. I don't consider them a part of my undergraduate (academic) scholarship and don't see why any athlete should.

The question, therefore, is whether scholarships alone are sufficient compensation for the services athletes provide universities. It is not an unreasonable stand to claim that they are not (especially in this big $$ era) and that athletes are indeed getting a raw deal despite receiving scholarships.