Comedians Comment on What They Don't Understand: College Sports Edition

by Neil H. Buchanan

Two years ago, in "The Downside of Outsourcing Political Oversight to Comedians," I commented on the unfortunate fact that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had come to fill the role that a robust political media should have been playing, if only we still had anything resembling a healthy political press in this country.  Lacking that important corrective that should be provided by a skeptical press, the only people left to speak truth to power were the late night comedians.

The problem, of course, is that those comedians are comedians first and foremost.  Even people who are as smart as Stewart and (especially) Colbert cannot be expected to have absorbed either journalistic norms or anything resembling deep knowledge of any subject matter.  Both Stewart and Colbert have excellent BS meters, and their commentaries have often been extremely important to the political discourse in this country.  As I described last month in "Is It Too Soon To Say That I Won't Miss Jon Stewart?" however, even a finely tuned BS meter can lead him astray at times.

One potential solution to the problem of lack of expertise by a talk show host, of course, is to hire experts as researchers and writers.  The economic model of late-night talk shows is generally not going to support that strategy, however, because the most valuable staff must necessarily be joke writers.  Besides, why develop any expertise when the goal is to produce a four-minute segment?

"Daily Show" alumnus John Oliver seemed to have broken the code, however, when he introduced his show "Last Week Tonight" on HBO last year.  After a quick monologue, each week's show is devoted to a long-form analysis of a serious public policy issue.  Oliver's staff clearly does real research, including statistical research, in preparation for each week's big topic.

Although Oliver always makes it funny, he is very serious about his analysis, and he takes on important issues: America's crumbling infrastructure, election of U.S. state judges, tobacco companies' intimidation of small countries that try to regulate or ban smoking, the death penalty, and similar issues.  Because there are no commercials, the 30-minute show really is 30 minutes long, giving them more than 20 minutes each week to devote to their central issue.

Last week's episode, however, seriously missed the mark.  Keyed to the beginning of college basketball's "March Madness," Oliver passed up the opportunity to do something serious, instead being satisfied to list a bunch of half-baked arguments that supposedly prove that college athletes should be paid cash salaries.

I have occasionally written about this topic, coming out strongly against changing the NCAA's ban on cash payments to athletes.  (Most recently, see this Verdict column from last August.)  In this post, however, I do not want to revisit that debate.  Instead, I want to describe Oliver's big fumble, and to think about what he might have done differently.

Most people are familiar with the basic set of claims that motivates calls for paying cash salaries to college athletes.  TV money has increasingly poured into football and men's basketball.  Coaches are the highest-paid employees of most NCAA Division 1 universities.  Players are often treated badly and tossed aside if they are injured or break seemingly petty rules.  I do understand that a few people view the issue as one of free markets and similar matters, but Oliver's rendition of the indictment of the current model accurately captured the standard set of complaints.

The problem is that most elements of that standard indictment do not support the conclusion that Oliver and others reach.  For example, he rightly points out that universities are currently permitted to avoid paying the medical bills of college athletes who become injured, and that the athletes can lose their scholarships as well.  That, however, simply calls for a requirement that universities pay for health care coverage (especially disability insurance), and that they guarantee scholarships for students, even for former athletes after they stop playing.

"Simple" is not "easy," of course, and there are surely university administrators who make indefensible arguments against those reforms.  Even so, the point is that Oliver's outrage (which, to be clear, appears to be the same outrage that one hears in most conversations in this country about college sports) is misdirected.  Especially because the typical athlete would not be paid enough to buy his own disability insurance (and would probably have to be required to do so, even if he could afford it), this very real problem calls for a very different solution.

Similarly, Oliver points out (and had some very juicy film footage demonstrating) that some college coaches are bigoted psychopaths.  They are also being paid millions of dollars.  Oliver, however, uses that as an opportunity to say that college athletes must feel pretty rotten about not being paid, given that they have to tolerate being yelled at by a psychopathic millionaire.  It is hard to see how paying salaries to the athletes is the right answer.  I suppose that it might feel better to say, "I'm being paid 1 or 2 percent of what that psycho is being paid to call me a f*ggot," but that seems to miss the point.  Again, it would surely not be easy to get universities to change on these matters, but why is the right answer to "the players are being verbally and physically humiliated" not to stop them from being humiliated?

The big issue, however, is whether the athletes are really students.  After spending much of his show completely ignoring the compensation that athletes do receive -- full-ride scholarships that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars -- Oliver finally turned to the question of whether education could count as the "pay" that athletes receive from their universities.  Unfortunately, he again missed the opportunity to make and support a real argument.

Instead, Oliver made two claims: First, he pointed out that there are documented cases of truly scandalous academic fraud at various universities.  Second, he suggested that it is too difficult to be a student and an athlete at the same time.   Both of those issues cry out for serious, data-based analysis -- which is exactly what has quickly become Oliver's stock in trade.  But on this topic?  Not so much.

On the first issue, which is whether college athletes are actually being educated, Oliver really offered nothing other than a few anecdotes.  But we do know, from actual statistical analyses, that graduation rates for athletes are not far below those for other students, and at some of the best academic institutions, the rates are above 90%.  But perhaps that is misleading, especially if the degrees that athletes receive are in some sense tainted.  Although that would be an important issue to analyze, Oliver -- again, in a long-form journalistic expose -- does not even admit that this question exists.

And if such evidence were to come to light, I would be one of the first people to adjust my views.  The way that I would change my view on this issue, however, would be to call for changes in the way universities educate their student-athletes.  Maybe it would, again, be more difficult to get the NCAA to change its rules on that issue than to get it to allow cash payments, but I doubt it.  Even if it would, however, I would rather expend our energies trying to ensure that the athletes do receive a quality education.

Weirdly, the closest thing to an argument that Oliver made regarding excessive time commitment to sports (the second of his two arguments) was to show a clip of Seattle Seahawks' star Richard Sherman, who described how tightly scheduled a college athlete's life is.  On that daily agenda, however, Sherman specifically included going to class.  Indeed, Sherman himself earned a B.A. as well as credits toward a Master's degree while playing football at Stanford, making him a particularly odd example for Oliver to trot out to support the idea that college athletes are not receiving real educations.

On the other hand, at least Oliver avoided the jaw-droppingly crazy argument that Larry Wilmore (another "Daily Show" alum) offered on his pay-cash-to-athletes segment on "The Nightly Show" this past Monday.  There, after showing a clip of a talking head describing the "age-old question" of paying athletes in dollars, Wilmore said this (using his fingers to make ironic air quotes): "OK, but seriously, why do college athletes need 'dollars'?  They're getting paid in education.  It's more like 'brain bucks' that they can redeem at the 'knowledge store' to buy 'wisdom points,' and those wisdom points will help them have perspective when they are 'homeless.'  It all works out.  Because they don't have 'actual money.' "

Talk about being blinded to the big picture!  Wilmore mocks the very idea that education can be valuable.  At least Oliver steered clear of that mess.  Wilmore's show, however, is not engaged in the same enterprise as Oliver's.  (Some nights, it is not at all clear what Wilmore's show is doing.  After a reasonably strong first month, the show has lately shown signs of flailing.)  Oliver is very much committed to the idea that it is possible to entertain people while providing them with important information that goes beyond the usual sound bites and simplistic nonsense.

This is a real shame, because the public square is especially poorly served when it comes to serious discussions of the very real issues raised by college sports.  Supposedly serious journalists, such as NYT op-ed writer Joe Nocera, are so badly confused that their writing sometimes seems almost intentionally designed to insult our intelligence.

And, as I noted above, there are some important factual questions that deserve further inquiry.  In particular, it would be important for someone at least to begin to describe where the money flows within a university that receives sports-related money.  But as good as John Oliver (and, occasionally, his cohorts) might be in dealing with serious issues of public policy, he missed his chance on this one.