It is Not Only Republican Politicians Who Are Harming Education, Part 1: College Sports Edition

[Note to readers: Three days ago, I published a column under the headline, "Two Outside Influences (Beyond the Obvious One) That Are Harming Higher Education."  Because that column was quite long, and because the headline did not adequately communicate the content of the column, I am breaking the column into two parts and publishing them under new titles.  I have thus edited what is now Part 1 below to include only the material relating to college sports, while Friday's column discusses the madness of university rankings (with a brief new intro).]


To be clear from the start, the major threat to higher education in the United States today is the intensifying anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party.  I have written about this extensively, of course, in part because the especially ridiculous version of that anti-intellectualism in Florida was the proximate cause of my decision to "retire" early and ultimately to move out of the state and country.  And I will surely write about all of those issues many more times (perhaps as early as this week, pending other news developments).

Setting aside that obvious cancer on America's greatest economic and social resource, then, here and in Part 2 of this column (to be published on Friday of this week) I want to discuss two additional meaningfully damaging influences on higher education: the professionalization of college sports, and the chaotic changes in the methods of ranking universities (focusing on law schools).  I do not claim that those two issues necessarily overlap, but I am interested in how the university environment can tolerate polluting elements only up to a point, beyond which the ecosystem collapses.

Consider today the matter of college sports. The big moneymaker has always been first and foremost football, followed at some distance by basketball.  Though much smaller than football, the men's hoops game has been a billion-dollar black hole for many years, and I suppose that we can now give two cheers that the women's game has recently become important enough to be worth corrupting with big bucks.  Indeed, the money-slosh has recently started to move even beyond those sports, but that is beyond the scope of this column.

Last week, in a discussion of how fascism can change imperceptibly from being a background threat to an unstoppable disaster, I noted that many problems that get out of hand can have "identifiable turning points.  The recently intensifying degradation of college sports has been ongoing for decades, for example, but the court decisions and state laws that allowed 'name, image, and likeness' payments to be made to athletes turned out to be the beginning of the end, even though NIL seemed to be a minor sideshow at the time."  That is worth discussing in more detail.

The longstanding debate about college sports has centered on the question of whether universities should pay cash salaries to players rather than (or possibly in addition to) the extremely valuable full-ride deals that even weak athletic programs provide to student-athletes.  I have long argued that it is simply wrong to claim that college athletes are "not getting paid," and I have further argued that the value of the education itself (even for the minority of athletes who never complete a degree) is the most valuable thing that we can give these athletes -- most of whom will never turn pro, and many of whom are being given an opportunity to attend college when they otherwise would be very unlikely to do so.  Short version: Pay them with knowledge and credentials, and keep cash out of it.

I still think that that would have been the best approach, but that ship has sailed to the point where it is not even a dot on the horizon.  That is bad for higher education, for society, and for most of the athletes themselves, but it is simply a fact.  We have experienced a regime change, and there is no way to un-ring that bell.  What happened?

As I noted in the quoted passage above, NIL did not seem particularly important at the time.  I did not understand why the courts and state legislatures (and this was entirely bipartisan, as far as one can tell) were so intent on allowing NIL payments, but even though I thought it a mistake to do so, it seemed to be only one minor element of the story.  The big enchilada, I thought, continued to be holding the line on cash payments.

Why did NIL seem relatively (and I do emphasize that adverb) innocuous?  In economic terms, I assumed -- but in no way was I consciously aware that I was assuming this -- that the NIL world would be governed by "market fundamentals" that were predictable and would remain stable.  The Trump Media stock bubble-and-bust is an extreme example of a "meme stock" phenomenon, which tautologically is a deviation from underlying true valuations.  I have more than my share of disagreements with orthodox economics, but the notion of market fundamentals simply says that there has to be something "real" behind the values of assets.  Tulip bulbs in Amsterdam went up in price by a factor of more than twenty from November 1636 to February 1637, but that was obviously unsustainable.  And it was.  Their value was not zero, but it was not "more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled artisan."

Moreover, there was no reason to think that NIL's would have a bubble period at all.  My completely orthodox assumption was that there would be a "fundamental" market valuation that would justify payments to a handful of the biggest stars in a few powerhouse programs, meaning at most that those few players who were going to make millions after signing their inevitable NFL contracts would now be able to start taking in some serious cash a few years earlier than usual.

That turned out to be more than a bit naive, to say the least.  This morning, I happened upon a one-minute YouTube clip of an interview with a guy who is connected to the football program at the University of Miami.  The Hurricanes were an absolutely dominant program in the Eighties and Nineties, which never made a lot of sense, because it is a relatively small university that did not have the head start that long-term powers like Notre Dame and USC had nurtured into dynasties.  And just like a bubble bursting, shortly after the turn of the millennium, Miami faded and has struggled to return even to relevance, much less dominance.

That has not, of course, stopped the people who care about the 'Canes from dreaming of a return to glory.  And NIL is the way they expect to make their comeback.  Here is what their guy said in the interview: "NIL, at the end of the day, is a contest for who has the most shady billionaires.  And Miami will always win that competition." As a friend pointed out to me in conversation this morning, NIL makes it unnecessary to have shady billionaires.  The Miami guy is not wrong, however, to say that even if shadiness were still necessary, his team is blessed with many options.

More to the point, the NIL market quickly stopped being a market driven by actual demand for the uses of names, images, and likenesses.  Recall that the Ed O'Bannon case was originally about the use of real players' avatars in a video game, which is an actual product with supply and demand driving the fundamentals.  Instead, NIL's turned almost immediately into a bazaar in which the people who would have given money to their favorite teams (teams that happen to be attached to universities, but whatever) to buy players directly with pay-to-play salary deals can accomplish that goal simply by donating to NIL "funds" for those teams, which then pay even non-stars.

After a few short years, this is old hat to people who follow college football.  Even so, the consequences of this change are enormous.  The debate about paying cash salaries will probably continue, but more out of habit than anything else.  Everything has changed irreversibly, and the only question is how this will play out in a fully professionalized environment.  As I noted in a column earlier this year, the early signs are not good.  Players are now refusing to play "meaningless" games, lest they become injured and lose future paydays, but the problem is that most games are now meaningless -- or even more meaningless than they have been all along.  And I have not even mentioned the increasing chaos caused by the "transfer portal," which is simply free agency by another name.

Moreover, whereas the major leagues have central offices that coordinate things like "luxury taxes" to prevent New York and Los Angeles-based teams from ruining their sports, how could that happen in college sports -- especially after everyone has decided to hate the NCAA?  Most importantly, the major leagues have players' unions that exert real power and protect (quite imperfectly, but still meaningfully) their members' health and financial interests.  Will a sport that is dominated by Red State public universities ever allow unionization?  Who are we kidding?

Again, this is almost all bad, at least compared to the road not taken.  Even so, this is where we now find ourselves.  A chaotic grab for cash and glory went from unfortunate to embarrassing to ugly to absurd, and now it has turned the entire enterprise into something else entirely that will continue to change in ways that no one can predict.

This plays out in similarly perverse ways in the context of university rankings, which I discuss in Part 2 of this column.