Ok, not proximately, but ultimately.
I sat in on a panel discussion yesterday that included, among others, Taylor Branch who has done excellent work on the corruption and money-grubbing in elite college athletic programs. Also present was Bill Friday, former UNC-system president and founding member of the Knight Commission.
There is a lot of discussion about solutions to the current problem. Branch is a supply-sider, favoring donning student athletes with professional status and letting the market set their salaries. Friday wants to target demand, and thinks students can remain amateur unpaid athletes if penalties on errant programs are sufficiently harsh.
Less coherent is the story of how we got here. We know at some point over the past several decades a collusion of fans, alumni, boards of trustees, and administrators at top schools all bowed to the temptation to turn college athletic programs into behemoths.
But don’t kid yourself that these people lived virtuously before. The temptation just wasn’t present because the structural conditions to make this kind of money in college sports were not there. Were Adam and Eve any less predisposed to sin before they saw the apple?
It’s no coincidence that the information age coincided with the college athletics arms race. All entertainment industries have seen enormous groundswells in profit potential as modern information technology increased avenues for fans all over the globe to watch and interact with entertainers. For sports, that meant more people flying into games, more lucrative tv contracts to stream games to larger audiences, more merchandise sales, more overall demand to watch the same players doing the same things they have always done.
This notion isn’t original, although no one seems to be incorporating it well into the college athletic program story — or at least people don’t focus on it. Maybe that’s because there’s little that can be done through human agency to fix that, but that fact alone should be informative. If you want a succinct summary of the premise, Yale economist Robert Shiller gets right to the point starting around 5:20 in the video below, which he refers to as the “winner-take-all-effect.”
This incentive is enormous. It’s a broader driver of globalization. Don’t kid yourself that humans are able to resist it. If you suddenly woke up tomorrow and realized that over the course of the night, the work you did could command a tenfold wage increase — no human capital investment or work hour increase required — you would take it.
There’s a well-known “presentist bias” among people. In general, today is much like yesterday, and so as our minds grasp for a heuristic, we assume as a general rule not to think tomorrow will be much different than today. Projecting our core assumptions about the state of the world when we wake up allows us to start our day in calm and comfort rather than in paralyzing uncertainty.
So even when athletic programs and boards of trustees and alumni make fateful decisions to alter the nature of elite college sports, even when they use the rhetoric of “game change”, few people assume on the margin that history has been dramatically affected. And on the margin, it usually hasn’t. But we all know “hindsight is 20/20”. We make decisions incrementally, always with a bias toward the present. We look back and reflect over the sum total of decisions, and it’s only then that we see the full impact.
I’m not seeking to exonerate those who were major contributors to turning college athletics into a system of labor exploitation and corrupt greed. If anything, the real tragedy here is not that college spots became so amazingly profitable, but that when entertainers around the world were reaping the benefits of the information age, college athletes were being unjustly left out.
I am saying that we often focus on the proximate players in the game without reflecting on the possibility of broader structural drivers of human behavior. Doing so often means missing out on the full scope and scale of the problem (if you see it as such), which means we’re sadly missing the forest through the trees.