The Irony Bowl, II: What of the university’s amateur status?

After posting the Irony Bowl, a set of related articles have since come out in various publications and addressing various aspects of the university's amateur status. 

One recent article noted the lost revenue to Boise State from the loss to Nevada that dropped them out of the Rose Bowl and its $3 million payout ($8 million to the Western Athletic Conference). The sportswriter does a nice job of questioning the conflicts here between amateur athletes and the tons of money to everyone who surrounds them:

“I’ve talked about the $1 million free throw and the $15 million field goal for a long time,” said the sociologist Jay Coakley, author of the textbook “Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies,” in its 10th edition. “As the structure of college football becomes increasingly professionalized, it’s just out of sync with the amateur status of the athletes.” [emphasis added]

Simply paying players is not the answer, he said. Would the pressure on Brotzman and the fallout of his misses be any less if he was given, say, a $100-a-week stipend?

“I get really discouraged when I talk about this because I don’t see a way around it anymore,” Coakley said by phone. “Unless there is a total reconstituting of college sports, you’re going to continue to end up with these situations and these inconsistencies.”  [emphasis added, again]

Yet while the article does a nice job of acknowledging the conflict (and irony) of professionalizing the college sport for everyone but the athlete, it does commit one of the more heinous of sportswriting sins—it places the loss, and lost revenue, on the shoulders of Boise State's placekicker, who missed the game winning field goal. Boise State was ranked 4th in the country, Nevada was 19th—the entire team was responsible for letting the game come down to a last second kick.

And in a nice twist—Nevada actually ended up losing $1 million in revenue it would have received for Boise State's participation in the Rose Bowl.  Score one for the game.

Amateur Athletes, Big Business

Another, a post by Sean Gregory, The Real Winner in All Those College Football Bowl Games? The CEOs, describes a forthcoming book, 

A new book, and a report from a political action committee that's trying to change college football, has tied together the college bowl system and excessive executive pay to give us all more reason to be irked. The book, Death to The BCS — which, despite its hyperbolic title, offers the most thoroughly researched, reasoned, and readable argument for a college football playoff to date — digs into federal tax records and says that in 2007, nearly two dozen bowl directors earned more than $300,000 a year. Many bowl organizations are non-profit entities. "The fabulous salaries of bowl directors was a surprise," says Dan Wetzel, the national columnist for Yahoo! Sports who, along with Josh Peter and Jeff Passan, co-authored the book. "But it perfectly explained why we now may use losing teams to fill the 35 bowl games. Everyone wants a payday like that."

As a defense of such salaries, the CEOs argue,

College athletics, and in particular college football, are big business where competition is keen and multi-million dollar athletic budgets, television contracts and administrators/coaches salaries are the norm. Like it or not, this is the world we compete in every day.

Big business for everyone but the athletes—who, held to the strictest charade regarding their role as amateurs, lie at the core of the entire process.  It was not always the case, though no better for the athlete, a century ago. Kenneth Davis's Op-Ed in the NYT, Schools of Hard Knocks, last week recounted how,

More than a century ago, before there was a true professional league, cash payments were made to “amateur” college athletes. Coaches gave orders to take out rivals on the field… In 1905, these abuses and catastrophic injuries were so widespread, and public disapproval of them so deep, the game faced extinction. Football was saved, in part, by the intervention of the American president.

Davis notes that journalist Henry Beach Needham was instrumental in bringing reform, due in part to his articles, “The College Athlete,” in 1905, arguing, that, "Thanks to the influence of the colleges, there is growing up a class of students tainted with commercialism.”  Returning to today's campuses, Needham would be embrassased by the naivete of his understatement.  Nevertheless, the articles, the injuries, and his friendship with President Teddy Roosevelt would bring reforms to the game and spawn the NCAA.  

Davis finishes so well I simply quote it here:

Needham’s 105-year-old conclusion still rings uncomfortably true: “Who can blame the college man for harboring the desire to win? No one. But it is more than that: to win at any cost — that is the source of the present deplorable condition of intercollegiate athletics.” 

Not just the fieldhouse

Perhaps the problem is just sports—then the university system can rest easy that the deplorable conditions of tainted commercialism can be cordoned off down at the athletic fields.  But, in the spirit of Glee's tolerance for the diversity of academic life, let's not just pick on the athletes.

Consider, for example, the amateur status of our nation's economic professors, and particularly those who serve as advisors to federal policy makers.  

Sewell Chan's NYT article, "Academic Economists to Consider Ethics Code" notes that Stanford business professor Darrell Duffie co-wrote a book on how to overhaul Wall Street regulations, while neglecting to mention his position on the board of one of the leading credit rating agency, Moody’s, (who is fighting to preserve its own integrity after having missed signs of the impending financial collapse). Similarly, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former adviser to President Clinton and former Dean of University of California, Berkeley's business school, "does not usually say that she is a director of Morgan Stanley" when offering commentary on economic policy. 

This article recalls the 2002 images of Accounting professor and former dean of the Stanford GSB Paul Jaedicke testifying before congress for his role on the Board of Directors (and Chairman of its Audit Committee) of Enron.

So to what ethical standards (the collegiate professor's equivalent to the amateur status of our collegiate athletes) should we hold our economists?  Certainly their research is held to the highest standards of peer research, but what of their public policy comments—uttered in op-eds, sunday morning talk shows, and the (much worse) advise dispensed to policy makers?   

The challenge is not new, as the life sciences have had to deal with their own version of this in the past few decades: the disclosure of so many university medical researchers (and their research projects) being funded by the very pharmaceuticals whose drugs are the subject of the research. As Drs. John Abramson and Barbara Starfield note in "The Effect of Conflict of Interest on BiomedicalResearch and Clinical Practice Guidelines," 

Funding for clinical research has changed dramatically over the past 2 or 3 decades. Before 1970, few clinical studies were sponsored solely by the drug companies. A 1982 article in the journal Science noted the transition: “Scientists who 10 years ago would have snubbed their academic noses at industrial money now eagerly seek it out.”

In other words, the taint of commercialism is not limited to amateur (or not) athletics, appearing also in university labs, research publications, and policy podium time.

At this rate, the university's brand value—as disinterested scientists and amateur athletes—cannot last much longer. Moreover, the same scandals that can bring down a football powerhouse like USC might next happen with prominent scientists or policy advisors on opposite corners of campus.  Is it worth it?